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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Why I’m Not An Organic Farmer

Pesticides, GMOs, Roundup, super-weeds, evil wheat, big Ag and a hundred other buzz-words are touted as the failure of modern agriculture’s quest to feed the world.  Organic farming is proclaimed as the solution to these problems, as the future of sustainable agriculture. The reality is, as I will tell you in this post, that the opposite is true; conventional farming, not organic, is better for the environment and can sustainably and safely feed a growing world.

As an aside, I have no problem with most organic farmers. The ones that I know do it not for idealogical reasons, but for economical ones. For their farms, they believe they will make more money growing organic crops than conventional ones. There is nothing wrong with that, and I don’t want to go on an attack against farmers doing the best they can to do what they love. Furthermore, I’m not going to go on record saying that conventional agriculture is perfect. We have many improvements to make, and there are some real issues that need to be addressed – but that is a concern for another day. Also, for the purposes of this post, I want to focus in on crop production, so I’ll leave livestock out of this discussion.

Organic vs Conventional Agriculture: What’s The Difference?

First of all, I don’t want to assume everybody is as obsessed with agriculture as I am, so let’s just go through some basic differences between these two production methods.

Organic agriculture is a $2.6 billion dollar industry in Canada, with regulations stipulating what products farmers can use on their farms. Genetically modified crops are not allowed, and neither are synthetic fertilizers. Pesticides are a more complicated matter, with only “organic” chemicals allowed for use.

For a farm to be certified organic, each of its fields must be free of any prohibited substances for three years before certification by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency is allowed. Are organic crops tested before they are certified? No; at least, according to this source. The CFIA disagrees, but concedes it is still more or less an honour system.

Without synthetic fertilizers and chemicals, organic farmers must use alternatives to grow their crops and kill weeds and insects. Essentially, it is a reversion to agriculture practices of 100 years ago. While some of these practices are quite effective and perhaps even have a fit in conventional agriculture, most of them were abandoned years ago with the introduction of fertilizers and pesticides. The reasons were numerous, but they really all began in the infamous “Dirty 30’s”.

Tillage and Soil Erosion

Today, we talk about four elements of weed control: cultural (crop selection), chemical (herbicides), biological (using natural enemies- still a very new and undeveloped field) and mechanical. In modern agriculture, cultural and chemical controls are our primary weapons in the war against weeds, with the real emphasis on chemicals- crops like corn and soybeans are just not that competitive. Wheat, barley, canola and other such crops are actually very competitive, but they still depend on herbicides to get established and get ahead of the weeds.

A century ago, there were no real herbicides available. With that option stripped out, and biological controls in their infancy even today, that really only left mechanical and cultural controls- exactly like organic farming today. Mechanical control essentially involves steel; DSC_0367 (640x354)using shovels, discs, rods, harrows, etc. to uproot, rip and drag weeds apart to kill them. Every second year, each field must remain idle (not seeded, or “summerfallow”) and constantly tilled up to stay ahead of difficult weeds. This kind of intensive tillage leaves the ground bare, exposed to direct sunlight and the ravages of heavy winds. Remember hearing about dust storms? That is the unfortunate end result of old-school farming. Without chemical controls, there is simply no way to consistently grow crops (especially up here in the northern climates) all year round to stay ahead of weeds. Yes, natural grassland will do that, but how will that feed 7 billion people?

In my area of the world, I have seen- and continue to see- the effects of long-term tillage on our soils. Heavy rains and winds wash precious topsoil into ditches and sloughs. Wet spots in the field stay that way for months and months, allowing salts to collect on the soil surface; eventually turning the ground a ghostly white, a sober metaphor of the inability of that soil to grow anything again for generations. The reality is that, at least in Western Canada, herbicides are our only method of controlling soil erosion; they allow us to minimize tillage.

Is tillage the only way for organic farmers to control weeds? No; there are other methods, including cover crops and precise planting timing to keep weeds in check. However, as good as some of these methods can be, they are still not the solution, with most farmers opting for the reliability of tillage instead. And, ultimately, they still do not solve the other stark reality of organic agriculture: it cannot possibly feed the world.

A Growing Population Needs All The Tools It Can Get

In 1898, a scientist by the name of Sir William Crookes, new president for the British Academy of Sciences, stated unequivocally that the world would run out of food by the 1930’s. A lack of fertilizer would cause world crop yields to plummet, and massive starvation would ensue. Current production methods of manure and saltpeter harvesting to use as fertilizer would eventually be outstripped by an exploding human population. He said the only way to prevent this famine would be to synthetically produce fertilizer. Less than 20 years later that became a reality, thanks to Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch.

Our atmosphere is nearly 80% nitrogen. It is one of the most important building blocks of life; but it is unavailable to us – and plants – in its atmospheric form. Crops require nitrogen for growth and reproduction. Before synthetic fertilizer, animal manure and bird guano were the only sources of fertilizer. Crops were carefully rotated with nitrogen producing pulse crops and forages to generate as much N as possible. Yet, inexorably, yields would eventually decrease as the soil became exhausted of nutrients. The Haber-Bosch process solved that problem by converting atmospheric nitrogen to a usable form for plants. So, essentially, so-called “synthetic” fertilizer really isn’t synthetic at all; rather, it is a natural component of the air we breathe every day. Without it, the crop yields would long ago have failed, and the world would not be what it is today.

Without synthetic fertilizer, and their natural counterpart, pesticides, crops would not be able to sustain enough growth to feed the world as it is today. Haber and Bosch are responsible for one of the greatest inventions of our history. Why go back to the problems of 100 years ago when we have already found the answer?

Organic Food: Is It Really Healthier?

The final component of this blog post concerns the misconception that organic food is somehow more nutritious than conventionally grown food. There is a belief that pesticides somehow contaminate the seed of the plant itself, finding its way directly into our food. To some degree this is true. But the reality is that the residues that find their way into our food are so abysmally tiny that in 98% of our food, there is no difference between food that is grown conventionally and food that is grown organically. What about that other 2%? It still comes in below the stringent limits set by the government (source).

But wait; isn’t organic food healthier than conventional? According to a recent Stanford Medicine study, that is simply not true. No nutritional differences of significance were found when comparing the two production methods.

Organic Farming Is Not The Future

The answer to the question of whether organic agriculture is more sustainable, better for the environment or healthier than conventional agriculture is clear. Organic farming causes greater soil erosion, is not healthier or safer for consumption and would sentence billions of people to die, most of them in developing nations. Isn’t it easy to criticize a method of producing food when you have never been hungry?

I choose to farm with pesticides, GMOs and fertilizers because I know that it is the right choice. I know that standing behind the use of these products will help feed a growing and hungry world. Yes, there are still problems with our agriculture system, but I know that farmers and researchers are savvy and brilliant individuals that will solve these problems over time. Yes, organic farming is a choice some farmers make, and I am not going to attack their choices. What I am attacking is the marketing and smearing of conventional agriculture; the misinformation that permeates this discussion and diminishes the importance of it.

During my time as a farmer, I have spent a lot of time studying this issue. As an agronomist, I have seen first-hand the consequences of organic farming, and the successes of modern conventional agriculture. As a third-generation farmer, I know how amazing our progress has been in agriculture, and I am excited about the possibilities of the future.

canola field

Any thoughts on this post? Disagree? Write a comment below.

Sources and Further Reading

California Department of Agriculture. (2007). 2007 Pesticide Residues in Fresh Produce. http://www.cdpr.ca.gov/docs/enforce/residue/rsmonmnu.htm

Canadian Food Inspection Agency. 2014. Canada Organic Regime: A Certified Choice.

Hager, T. 2008. The Alchemy of Air. New York, NY, USA: Broadway Books.

Humpreys, A. 2012. Canada’s organic food certification system ‘little more than an extortion racket,’ report says. National Post.

Smith, E.G., Knutson, R.D., Taylor, C.R., Penson, J.B. 1990. Impact of chemical use reduction on crop yields and costs. Texas A&M Univ., Dep. of Agric. Economics, Agric. and Food Policy Center, College Station.

Smith-Spangler, C. et. al. 2012. Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives?: A Systematic Review. Annals of Internal Medicine.

Are Farmers Killing Bees?

There has been a lot of talk about pesticides and GMOs and their impact on bee health. Apocalyptic predictions are being made about the effect of insecticides on bees, claiming that farmers and chemical companies are the cause of reduced bee numbers. As a farmer that uses these products, I feel that it is important to get to the bottom of this issue, separate fact from fiction, and understand if these claims are legitimate. I think you’ll find, as I did, that the hype about bees and pesticides is just that- hype.

For nearly the past eight years, bee health has been a pressing issue in the news. When severe colony collapses were first noted in 2006, a flurry of finger-pointing ensued, with blame pointed at disease, mites, viruses, and, of course, genetically modified crops and pesticides. Recently, the discussion has shifted specifically to seed treatments, and the theory that they are responsible for this so-called colony collapse disorder. Governments have been quick to begin talks of banning these insecticidal seed treatments, and in some parts of the European Union, bans have already taken place. Is this simply a government being prudent, or are they going too far, too fast? First, I have to get through some sciency stuff, so we’re all on the same page.

What are neonicotinoids?

Neonicotinoids (I’ll call them neonics from here on) are a class of insecticidal chemicals that we use quite regularly, both as seed treatments and as foliar insecticides. Their main Canola Emergenceuse is in seed treatments, which are applied to all canola and soybean seed that we buy, and which we also apply to most of our wheat, durum and barley. They are also found in the seed treatments used on corn. Sometimes, we need them to kill pests after crop emergence, particularly in canola, where flea beetles can be very damaging.

Insecticides are pretty straightforward in nature; they are used to target insect pests that affect our crop. Some of them are pretty nasty. There were some old chemistries out there that were rather toxic, and were generally bad for the environment. As time went on, newer and better chemistries evolved that became safer, cleaner, and more targeted to a specific class of insects. Neonics were a breakthrough when they were first introduced, with benefits including low application rates, low toxicity for mammals, good systemic movement in plants and a variety of application methods.

Let me quickly run through the very basic biochemistry of how neonics work: they bind to nicotinic acetylcholine receptors of a cell within the central nervous system, triggering cellular stimulation. Low to moderate stimulation of these cells is quite normal, but neonics bind at high enough levels to overstimulate and block these receptors, causing paralysis and death. In mammals, they don’t bind nearly as strongly, and as a result are much less toxic (that wasn’t so bad, was it? If you want more information, you can find it here).

Do neonicotinoids affect bee health?

I guess this is the billion-dollar question, right? The answer is not as simple as you might think. So far, the research has shown wildly different results when subjecting bees to acute (one-time) doses of neonics. Sensitivity to these chemicals varies with the test bee’s age, subspecies, nutrition, physiological condition, and handling during testing, in addition to the season that the testing was performed in. A vital detail of most of these studies is that they were performed in a laboratory setting. Interestingly, when testing outside of the lab, the same results were not found. Bees are incredibly complex organisms, and it seems that their gut microbiota changes drastically when grown in the wild, which changes their tolerance to insecticides.

The losses that beekeepers are sustaining have been at their worst in fall and winter; the time of the year when neonic seed treatments are not being applied. Conversely, during spring and summer, bee losses are minimal; and, since bees really only live for about a month at a time, carryover of toxins from spring to winter is extremely unlikely.

I think it is safe to say that high doses of insecticides of any kind are dangerous for bees. The same could be said for mammals, including humans. In fact, all kinds of chemicals that we use every day are toxic for humans. Alcohol, caffeine, aspirin, vinegar; they are all toxic substances in a high enough dose. The dosage makes the poison. A high enough dose of just about anything can be deadly. When you look at the results of good quality, peer-reviewed scientific literature, the results are pretty clear: neonicotinoids are not responsible for colony collapse disorder.

How are GMOs connected?

This is a misconception that is far too persistent in the public eye. There is a belief that GMOs are also responsible for colony collapse disorder, and that neonicotinoids and GMOs are connected. This is quite simply not true. In fact, the reality of the matter is that GMOs are not connected to bee deaths. Even if neonics were wholly responsible for colony collapse disorder, GMOs have little to do with their usage. Sure, I’ll grant that GM corn, soybeans and canola have been very popular, and that they are all coated with a neonic seed treatment. But, so are a great deal of wheat, durum, barley and oat acres, in addition to crops like peas and lentils. Even if we did not have genetically modified crops, we would still treat most of our main crops with an insecticidal seed treatment.

The genetic modifications present in our GM corn, soybeans and canola also do not affect bees. In fact, bee numbers in Western Canada, where canola is grown on nearly 20 million acres, are actually climbing. Canola yields have even been shown to improve with high numbers of bees available. The bee losses in Eastern Canada, and other areas, are caused by other factors, as you’ll see next, and are not nearly as bad as you might have heard.

So what’s killing the bees?

There are many factors involved with colony collapse disorder, but the most significant cause of increased bee mortality in the last few years has been the varroa mite. They suck blood out of bees and inject viruses, and they are so large in relation to bees that they are very dangerous to them. Miticides used to control the varroa mite have had mixed results, with constant resistance developing in the mite, reducing control. Furthermore, some of the miticides used are proving to be quite toxic to the bees themselves.

Fungal disease has been another cause of bee mortality, with a disease called Nosema being particularly damaging. Inadequate nutrition, improper hygiene and other diseases and mites are other damaging factors that have been affecting bee health.

Certainly, there is evidence that neonicotinoids have been hurting bees. The biggest problem has been the dust from planters, which when deposited at field edges from wind, can become quite concentrated. However, this issue is becoming quickly overcome with better planter technology and improvements in the powders applied with the seed to reduce dust. Indeed, the response from chemical companies and equipment manufacturers to reduce this toxic dust has been outstanding thus far, with fantastic improvements over only the past couple of years. They are taking this issue very seriously.

The stakes are high

Bees are responsible for pollinating more than $200 billion of agricultural crops worldwide. They are an absolutely vital part of our world’s ecosystem, and it is paramount that we discover why colony collapse disorder occurs. However, throwing blame on pesticide manufacturers is thus far unfounded. Unfortunately, it is a popular political position to take, as evidenced by the two-year ban in Europe and the Ontario government’s plan to reduce neonic use by 80% by 2017.

The fact is that we need these insecticides. Without neonicotinoids, we will have to go back to reliance on old, persistent, dangerous insecticides that could cause other significant environmental problems. An example of this is in Europe, where neonics have been banned. They are resorting to old, pyrethroid insecticides to control flea beetles in their rapeseed (much like canola) and are having substantial crop losses. Widespread resistance to these old insecticides is a major issue. Farmers are spraying for flea beetles without even knowing if the insecticide will kill them! Without neonics, we would quickly run into the same problems here.

On my farm, we use neonicotinoids for a reason- to grow crops. Without them, canola would be an extremely challenging crop to get established, and we would be using a lot more older, more dangerous insecticides to save them. Wireworms would have a significant impact on wheat production as well. In other regions, corn and soybean would suffer significant losses from other early-season insects.

At this stage, a ban is completely the wrong move. Governments need to base their decisions in science, not in the voices of a vocal minority. Farming is a difficult business, with a myriad of challenges that face us throughout the year. Right now, good pollination by bees simply is not a problem. Flea beetles, wireworms, soybean aphids, and a variety of other pests are all suppressed and/or controlled by current neonic seed treatments. Banning them on weak science will only cost farmers more money and hurt the environment. Is this the result we really want?

Note: I found a lot of great articles on this subject as I researched it. Check out the links below to read more. My article only scratches the surface of this issue.

References:

Cutler, G.C. 2007. Exposure to Clothianidin Seed-Treated Canola Has No
Long-Term Impact on Honey Bees. Entomological Society of America.

Entine, J. 2014. Bee deaths and neonics: Inside story of Colony Collapse Disorder, Harvard’s Chensheng Lu’s crusade. Genetic Literacy Project.

Fairbrother, A., et. al. 2014. Risks of Neonicotinoid Insecticides to Honeybees.  Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry.

Farmers Weekly. 2014. Flea Beetle ‘Epidemic’ Spurs Call For Neonic Return.

Gervais, J. A.; Luukinen, B.; Buhl, K.; Stone, D. 2010. Imidacloprid Technical Fact Sheet; National Pesticide Information Center, Oregon State University Extension Services.

RealAgriculture.com. 2014. OMAFRA & MOECC Announce Plan to Reduce Neonic Usage by 80% by 2017.

Simon-Delso, N. et. al. 2014. Systemic insecticides (neonicotinoids and fipronil): trends, uses, mode of action and metabolites. Environmental Science and Pollution Research.

Terry Daynard’s Blog (There are a few great posts on this subject that really explain bees and neonics well).

 

 

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?

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!