Saturday, 3 January 2015

GMO's- What Does It Mean Now?

It's been a defining issue for people concerned with the intersection of food production, the environment, corporate control and political influence, and the role of science and technology in solving our many problems. We don't even have to explain what GMO means any more, but a new approach to plant breeding means we need to think harder about what's the dividing line between conventional breeding (years of cross breeding within the same plant family, growing the little seedlings, see what they can do, re-crossing those with promise, steps than can take decades); cis-genesis (using bio engineering techniques to work within the same plant family, no introduction of foreign genes), and now a new subtle change to cis genesis that can result in some of the same characteristics of true GMO's (resistance to round-up for example).  It's a serious challenge to the regulatory framework that to many is already weak, and certainly to the growing issue of labelling.



http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/02/business/energy-environment/a-gray-area-in-regulation-of-genetically-modified-crops.html


By ‘Editing’ Plant Genes, Companies Avoid Regulation

Its first attempt to develop genetically engineered grass ended disastrously for the Scotts Miracle-Gro Company. The grass escaped into the wild from test plots in Oregon in 2003, dooming the chances that the government would approve the product for commercial use.
Yet Scotts is once again developing genetically modified grass that would need less mowing, be a deeper green and be resistant to damage from the popular weedkiller Roundup. But this time the grass will not need federal approval before it can be field-tested and marketed.
Scotts and several other companies are developing genetically modified crops using techniques that either are outside the jurisdiction of the Agriculture Department or use new methods — like “genome editing” — that were not envisioned when the regulations were created.
The department has said, for example, that it has no authority over a new herbicide-resistant canola, a corn that would create less pollution from livestock waste, switch grass tailored for biofuel production, and even an ornamental plant that glows in the dark.
A test plot of bioengineered grass in Gervais, Ore., is examined by a scientist for the Scotts Miracle-Gro Company.
The trend alarms critics of biotech crops, who say genetic modification can have unintended effects, regardless of the process.
“They are using a technical loophole so that what are clearly genetically engineered crops and organisms are escaping regulation,” said Michael Hansen, a senior scientist at Consumers Union. He said the grass “can have all sorts of ecological impact and no one is required to look at it.”
Even some people who say the crops are safe and the regulations overly burdensome have expressed concern that because some crops can be left unregulated, the whole oversight process is confusing and illogical, in some cases doing more harm than good.
In November’s Nature Biotechnology, plant researchers at the University of California, Davis, wrote that the regulatory framework had become “obsolete and an obstacle to the development of new agricultural products.”
But companies using the new techniques say that if the methods were not labeled genetic engineering, novel crops could be marketed or grown in Europe and other countries that do not readily accept genetically modified crops.
Freedom from oversight could also open opportunities for smaller companies and university breeders and for the modification of less common crops. Until now, in part because of the costs associated with regulation, crop biotechnology has been dominated by Monsanto and a handful of other big companies working mainly on widely grown crops like corn and soybeans.
Cells from a canola leaf during processing at Cellectis Plant Sciences.
“It enables small companies to develop products, and even university start-ups,” said Luc Mathis, chief executive of Cellectis Plant Sciences, which recently received a regulatory exemption for a potato it says will make French fries less unhealthy.
An industry-sponsored study said that the large companies spend an average of $136 million on the development of a genetically engineered crop, including $35 million in regulatory costs. The Agriculture Department once took two to five years to review applications, though it is trying to reduce that to 13 to 16 months.
Genetically engineered crops, popularly called genetically modified organisms or G.M.O.s, typically have genes from other organisms inserted into their DNA. The most popular ones, like Roundup-resistant soybeans and insect-resistant corn, use genes from bacteria.
Under a framework announced in 1986, oversight of the crops is shared by the Agriculture Department, the Environmental Protection Agency and theFood and Drug Administration. Rather than enact new laws for genetically engineered crops, the government covers them under existing statutes.
The Agriculture Department, which approves crops for commercial planting, is a case in point. Its authority stems from its responsibility for protecting American crops from plant pests, which typically are insects or pathogens.
That responsibility extends to certain G.M.O. crops because for many of them, the foreign gene is inserted through the use of a bacterium, or the inserted DNA contains a genetic “on” switch from a plant virus.
Peter Beetham, chief executive of Cibus, which uses genome editing to modify plants.
But companies can get around that oversight by avoiding components from plant pests. In Scotts’s newer grasses, for instance, the foreign genetic material comes only from other plants and is inserted with a gene gun rather than by the bacterium.
“If you take genetic material from a plant and it’s not considered a pest, and you don’t use a transformation technology that would sort of violate the rules, there’s a bunch of stuff you can do that at least technically is unregulated,” Jim Hagedorn, Scotts chief executive, told analysts in December 2013. He said the company nearly shut its biotech program after the previous mishap, until it hit upon the new strategy and created “a stunning array of products that are not regulated.”
The company recently started testing the grass on the lawns of its employees. But a spokesman said the grass was years from reaching the market.
A spokeswoman for the Agriculture Department said the agency was acting within the authority given to it by Congress and that even if it did not have oversight of a particular crop, the F.D.A. or E.P.A. might still be involved.
Other companies, including Cellectis, are using new genome-editing techniques that can change the plant’s existing DNA rather than insert foreign genes. Cibus, a privately held San Diego company, is beginning to sell herbicide-resistant canola developed this way.
“With our technology, we can develop the same traits but in a way that’s not transgenic,” said Peter Beetham, chief executive of Cibus, using a term for a plant containing foreign genes.
At Cellectis, creating a plant from a genome-edited cell.
Regulators around the world are now grappling with whether these techniques are even considered genetic engineering and how, if at all, they should be regulated.
“The technology is always one step ahead of the regulators,” said Michiel van Lookeren Campagne, head of biotechnology research at Syngenta, a seed and agricultural chemical company.
Some researchers argue that using genome editing to inactivate a gene in a plant, or to make a tiny change in an existing gene, results in a crop no different from what could be obtained through natural mutations and conventional breeding, though it is achieved more quickly.
“Those are basically comparable to what you get from conventional breeding,” said Neal Gutterson, vice president for agricultural biotechnology at DuPont Pioneer, a seed company. “We certainly hope that the regulatory agencies recognize that and treat the products accordingly.”
The gene editing, they argue, is also more directed and precise than the existing technique of exposing plants to radiation or chemicals to induce random mutations in hopes of generating a desirable change. This technique has been used for decades and is not regulated, even though it can potentially cause unknown and unintended changes to crops.
But critics of biotech crops say the genome-editing techniques can make changes in plant DNA other than the intended one. Also, the gene editing is typically done on plant cells or plant tissues growing in a dish. The process of then turning those genetically altered cells or tissues into a full plant can itself induce mutations.
Another category that some researchers say should receive less scrutiny is so-called cisgenic crops, which are developed using conventional genetic engineering but with the inserted genes from the same species as the crop.
An example is a potato developed by the J. R. Simplot Company that resists bruising and makes a less unhealthy French fry. The Agriculture Department reviewed the Simplot potato before approving it recently.
Jennifer Kuzma, co-director of the Genetic Engineering and Society Center at North Carolina State University, said that there would soon be a flood of crops seeking regulatory exemptions and that there needed to be a public discourse about what should be regulated, in part to allay possible consumer anxiety.
“It’s not that I think these are risky,” she said of the crops escaping regulation. “But the very fact that this is the route we are taking without any discussion is troubling.”

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Playing Fair

It didn't take long for the usual suspects to slam supply management again. The Conservatives introduced a pretty clumsy bill pretending that it would allow Canada's competition bureau to oversee price differences between the same products sold in the U.S. and Canada. First it was Global news, then the National Post and the Globe, all added that if the government really wanted to ensure fair pricing it would get rid of supply management in dairy and poultry industries.  Not so fast says Ottawa based trade consultant Peter Clark.  Thanks to Derwin Clow for seeing this item that has a lot of hard information about how Europe and the U.S. in particular subsidize their farmers. What Clark doesn't say is that one big difference in Canada is that there are no additional cheques in the mail for dairy and poultry farmers, they get paid once from the marketplace. It would be nice if the national columnists would do a little more research.

http://www.nationalnewswatch.com/2014/12/12/outing-the-global-agricultural-trade-cheats/#.VIzgB2TF-7R

“Outing” the Global Agricultural Trade Cheats

Free trade in agriculture is a Holy Grail often espoused by those who do not understand the complexities of agricultural production or the extent of rules-breaking in global markets for farm products.  It was not an accident that trade in agriculture was largely outside the GATT rules-based global trading system until 1994.
The brave experiment of the WTO Agreement on Agriculture has encountered considerable difficulty in building on initial progress.  Key players are unwilling to adopt new disciplines. Add to this the fact that rules about subsidies and disciplines are written to accommodate the practices of the deep-pocketed subsidizers.  Regional and Plurilateral Agreements cannot address these problems because they require multilateral solutions.
Even long-established free trade agreements are not immune to serious distortions resulting from the big vs. little game.  Take, for example, the long running dispute over US Country of Origin Labelling (COOL) Rules.  While it is difficult to argue against the desirability or legitimacy of providing consumer information (in this case, labelling) – this is not an unfettered right, particularly not when the workings of the US system under dispute are seen to adversely skew the market in favour of using domestic livestock at the expense of imported livestock.  Canada and Mexico have experienced considerable disruption and damage to their exports of live swine and beef cattle due to the US measures.  The dispute has been dragging on since 2009.  The aggregate damage to Canadian beef cattle and hog producers already exceeds $2.5 billion.
The WTO has condemned the US COOL measure on three separate occasions.  The most recent dispute settlement panel has rejected US arguments that their efforts to comply with initial losses were legitimate.  This came as no surprise to those involved.  The allegedly remedial measures introduced by Washington were worse than the flawed system they replaced.
On November 28, the US appealed this latest loss.  This is a classic case of ‘justice delayed is justice denied’.  Canada and Mexico are now threatening retaliation.  This may be business as usual for Mexico, but it is not at all normal for Canada.
Negotiating market access in a world of such subsidies and subterfuge in farm policy is not easy. Japan is reluctant to engage in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) talks aimed at opening markets for sensitive products because Japanese farmers understand the dangers of competing head-on with US farmers who benefit from massive government subsidies.  Indeed, Japan’s rice and dairy farmers are fully aware of the extent of US farm subsidies.  It is a reality they cannot ignore.
Canada, too, is often under pressure about its import regimes for dairy and poultry products.  There have been calls from restaurants for freer trade in dairy and poultry products (I can’t understand this – which restaurants face cross border competition?).  Frankly, farm groups should not include interests dedicated to keeping food input costs as low as possible.
Some academics have a rather flawed view of free trade.  Politicians, from former party leadership candidate Martha Hall Findlay to former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, are beating the drum for freer trade with no apparent concern about fairness.  Mr. Mulroney’s comments last week were a bit surprising.  He was able to negotiate free trade with the US and then NAFTA without throwing Canadian dairy and poultry farmers under the bus.  Before advocating unilateral concessions it behooves those trying to shape public opinion and negotiate strategies to research the facts and get them straight.
Let’s be clear – I support free trade but truly free trade requires must be made “free” by parties on both sides; it must also be fair – and this requires more than simply the removal of tariffs.
Many farm product markets are skewed by billions of dollars of ‘domestic support’ (i.e., subsidies), principally by the United States and the European Union.  This brief on the EU’s CAP program shows the extent of direct payments to its farmers.  The value of these direct payments is projected at €292.484 billion from 2014 to 2020.  In two of the major exporting countries the benefits are particularly striking: in France the value of direct payments is €51.4 billion; in Germany, €35.5 billion.
Canadian pork producers will finally receive enhanced access to the EU under the recently-negotiated (though not yet active) Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA).  It is limited access but much better than has been available to date.  It is worth noting, however, that the EU continues to provide considerable support and market insulation for EU producers of pigmeat.
The latest version of the EU Dairy Policy (outlined here) contains numerous elements which provide market stability – including export refunds and market insulation – and clearly skew the market in favour of EU farmers.  But, the problems of dairy trade are not unique or isolated to a few countries.  US dairy farmers calculate that free trade in dairy with New Zealand would cost them billions of dollars a year.
Canada has tariff rate quotas for dairy products, as do 29 other WTO members, including the United States and the European Union.  That is 57 countries in all.  Canada imports 8% of its dairy consumption, the US about 4% and the EU about 2%.
The United States does not come to the negotiating table with clean hands on a number of farm products.  Sugar is a constant source of problems (though Canada also shelters sugar refiners).  And, Washington has decided to buy its way out of its WTO sins on cotton instead of respecting the rules.
The US has dumped and subsidized its way to dairy exports success.  The graph below compares US costs of production for milk with farm gate prices for milk.  Since the WTO Agreements entered into force, the US Farm Gate price for milk has never been above its cost of production.  The average shortfall has been $4.57 centum weight (cwt) ranging from a low of $1.42 in 2007 to a high of $9.80 in 2009.
clark oped
Dairy farmers in the US are compensated for these shortfalls – i.e., for the difference between the farm gate price and the cost of production – through ‘mailbox’ programs like MILC (Milk Income Loss Contract).  US dairy farmers are also entitled to risk management insurance – via the Dairy Margin Protection Program and the Dairy Livestock Gross Margin programs – though it would be more accurate to refer to these as risk eliminationinsurance.  These programs provide insurance which is donated outright or subsidized by USDA.  They have given dairy farmers $4.00 per cwt or about 20% of the average cost of production over the past 19 years – without payment of any premium. The next $4.00 per cwt does require a premium but it is shared with/subsidized by USDA.
The US system provides dairy processors with below cost of production milk, which makes their prices more competitive in export markets.  US dairy exports are dumped and or subsidized.  While the US may defend the situation claiming that the purchase prices for milk by processors are actual market prices, the only way that US dairy farmers can sell at a loss, as they have over nearly 20 years, is for the government to subsidize and offset the losses.
Subsidization has no place in a free trade equation.  It is not fair trade.
Peter Clark, a former Canadian trade negotiator, is president of Grey, Clark, Shih and Associates Ltd., an Ottawa-based international trade consultancy. He is a frequent media commentator and appears regularly before Parliamentary Committees, analyzing trade and commercial policy issues.

Monday, 10 November 2014

New Neighbours

I'd been wanting to write about the Buddhist monks from Taiwan for quite a while. Getting information hasn't been easy,  not necessarily because the monks are trying to hide anything,  but they're very careful about how the public perceives them. There's also a very real language barrier.  Then I heard the Amish were also looking at coming to PEI, so I thought I'd write about both. This was a column that followed... and I'm including a second news stories not because I'm concerned about the farming practices of the Amish but because it shows that even farming practices we assume to be "right" can have uninended consequences.



Our New Neighbours

It may not happen for another year, but when you see a hitching post at the Tim Hortons in Montague, Souris or Kensington, you’ll know that PEI is the new home for some young Amish families. The agriculture economy has been very tough on farm families over the last fifteen years, and rural numbers continue to decline, but similar to what happened in the 1960’s and early ‘70’s, as PEI farmers get out, some willingly, others reluctantly, there are those who see opportunities to move in.  It was “back to the landers”, and Dutch tobacco, dairy and potato farmers and their families back then. Now it’s Buddhist monks from Taiwan, and possibly young Amish farm families from Ontario.

For the Amish it’s relatively cheap farmland, roads with good shoulders for those horse and buggies, and, according to someone who knows, yes even the Amish love Tim Hortons.  There was a period in the 1970’s when farms in PEI’s potato belt around Kensington were considered the most valuable in the country.  That changed as valuable seed potato markets were lost, and farmers were forced to switch to producing for the much less profitable french fry business. At the same time farmland around Amish and Mennonite communities in Ontario has shot up in value because of urban expansion,  and profitable corn and soybean markets.  Taken together PEI’s farmland is seen as a bargain, and gives young Amish families a chance to farm.

The story is a little more complicated, and difficult to get at, with the Buddhist monks and their supporters from Taiwan.  Taiwan is a highly industrialized, wealthy, capitalist country that exists precariously close to China, it’s long time ideological enemy. Buddhists in Taiwan know full well the violent repression of Buddhism in Tibet by the Chinese, and this particular group decided it was important to establish a home somewhere else in the world.  The spiritual leader of the Moonlight Foundation, a woman named Jin, had been moved by the selfless medical work of Canadian Dr. Norman Bethune during the Second Sino-Japanese War in the 1940’s, so Canada seemed like a good place to look.  Why rural eastern PEI? The question is often answered: “Because it’s quiet”. In other words, the monks need distance from the big city to practice the meditation that’s so important to their beliefs.  It’s probably fair to say that just like the Amish, the monks were attracted to relatively cheap farmland,  but, unlike the Amish, there was also a need for modern communication and transportation links, and the ability to move containers of soybean by sea back to Taiwan for processing.

Let’s be honest. It’s been unnerving for some to see saffron robed young men tilling and weeding vegetable and flower beds in  Heatherdale and Little Sands, large teaching facilities being built, and the purchase of thousands of acres of land in Eastern PEI by the organization.  How many farms does the group expect to buy? What’s it going to do with the many farms it’s already purchased?  These are questions still looking for answers. The group says this about its intentions: “The main goal of the Foundation is to bring happiness to all beings while promoting understanding and social harmony among different cultures.”  Among other activities it has created sanctuaries for farm animals including horses that are no longer wanted, and “promotes organic and natural farming to preserve and restore natural resources, including planting trees”.  Another stated goal is to relieve poverty, so don’t be surprised if there’s another large offering of winter coats to the Salvation Army this winter. I could think of worse neighbours.

The organization’s ability to pay cash for everything from farmland, to construction projects, to a dedicated high speed internet line to Little Sands, to winter tires, comes from sources familiar to any church, it’s lay members. Again Taiwan is a wealthy country, and well heeled business people view financial support of the foundation as contributing to the spiritual well being of themselves and others. There is also a business component to the organization which operates more than 70 supermarkets in Taiwan.  It has to import a huge percentage of the food these sell.  There was a delegation including the premier that went to Taiwan a few months ago to look for opportunities to supply this market. There has also been some discussion of operating a soybean processing plant here on PEI.  All of these could provide solid profitable markets for local farmers.

And don’t forget that no one is forcing PEI farmers to sell, in fact for many it’s been a relief to find a willing buyer.  There’s also no question that both of these groups will operate outside  the conventional farm economy, the Amish looking for simplicity, and self sufficiency, the Taiwanese monks are committed to organic farming “to heal people and the earth.”  And they do something else. A PEI farm family who’d faced tough times was talking business with an agent for the monks. The farmers said they felt respected, that they were doing something of value, something they hadn’t felt from the conventional food marketing system, and even other Islanders. The monks still have to win the trust of many of their neighbours, but for me, that one action was a good start.



 http://grist.org/food/the-amish-makers-of-jam-fine-cabinetry-and-polluted-rivers/

The Amish: Makers of jam, fine cabinetry, and polluted rivers

Many Amish people have denounced the Discovery Channel’s Amish Mafia TV show, now entering its fourth season, in part because the contrived show has brought them unwanted attention from law enforcement. It furthered a perception they would rather not have out there — that behind the Little House on the Prairie façade lurks a seedy underground rife with drug use, exorcisms, and counterfeit homemade goods.
But the environmental cops have always been much more interested in what was underground in the most literal sense — the pollution seeping into waterways from manure in the soil.
In late 2009, federal agents swooped into a collection of Amish farms in a quiet area of Lancaster County, Pa., where they found troubling evidence of water pollution: High concentrations of nitrates and E. coli bacteria in the water wells, loose manure not properly stored in tanks or sheds, and few livestock fences to keep cows from standing (and presumably defecating) in streams.
EPA inspectors found violations on 85 percent of the Amish farms. They warned the farmers that about half of their drinking water was contaminated with pathogens, and that they needed plans to bring their farms into the modern age of pollution control and conservation.
It’s not like some of the Amish farmers weren’t aware of these problems. One of them had just installed a water-treatment system because he believed the pollution caused his cows to birth dead calves. And the wider damage to the Chesapeake has been well-reported in the region: Excess manure from farms leads to algae blooms that contribute to large swaths of “dead zones,” where crabs and fish are so deprived of oxygen that they can’t survive.
Nevertheless, Amish farmers today remember the Watson Run Sting as a watershed moment, when they suddenly had to deal with an entity they go out of their way to avoid: the government.
Plain Sect” Amish eschew any kind of government intervention. They consider themselves sovereign. They neither pay into social security and government health benefits nor receive them. They speak their own language and attend their own schools. They follow their own scriptures and codes. So it’s not surprising that some of their farms wouldn’t be up to EPA’s codes.
But while they don’t contribute to government benefits, they continue to be a major contributor to the pollution flowing through the Chesapeake Bay. Agriculture is the largest source of pollution in the Chesapeake, which is fed by a 64,000-square-mile watershed that includes parts of six states and Washington, D.C. The EPA has identified three pollution “hot spots,” where its scientists have concluded a disproportionate amount of pollution is coming relative to size: the Shenandoah Valley, the Delmarva Peninsula, and the Amish’s home base in Lancaster County.
The Shenandoah Valley and the Delmarva Peninsula include many concentrated animal feeding operations — large-scale farms in laymen’s language — with thousands of chickens or cows. They require a federal permit and a great deal of oversight. By contrast, the Lancaster County farms tend to be small, with a few dozen head of milk cows, heifers, or horses on each. And yet they are prodigious polluters. In 2007, Lancaster County generated 61 million pounds of manure. That is six times more than what other counties generated, according to The New York Times.
Often, state officials blame each other for the bay’s pollution; Maryland is fond of pointing a finger at Pennsylvania for dumping its sediment downstream; Virginia officials are miffed that Maryland leaders try to take all the credit for restoration work; and West Virginia’s own attorney general is suing the EPA over its mandatory Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load. But in the case of Watson’s Run, there is no one else to blame but the farmers.
“Watson Run is a headwater stream without any influence of any upstream water bodies,” the EPA Summary Paper reads. “Therefore, stream impairments in Watson Run are not being caused by upstream sources.”
The agency is now requiring farmers to follow the state laws already in place and develop plans to control sediment, store manure, and dispose of dead animals. Most farmers know they have to take these steps — not just because the EPA says so, but because their land and water will be healthier if they do. So perhaps it’s no surprise that after Watson Run, more than a few Amish farmers have been willing to lose a little of their religion over the government-aid question.
The U.S. Farm Bill and state programs offer millions of dollars in assistance to Chesapeake Bay farmers every year for practices that reduce pollution from farms. They include fencing cattle from streams, retrofitting barns to collect stormwater, taking land out of production to plant forested buffers along streams, and building manure storage facilities. None are cheap. A manure storage facility alone can cost up to $150,000. Add to that the planning, accounting, and monitoring of federal funds, and Amish farmers are looking at a long and involved relationship with government officialsm, whether they like it or not.
Plus, they’re starting from behind. The horse-drawn plow looks pastoral against the wheat fields, but it tears up the soil, promotes erosion, and does not keep the manure where it should be — where the plants are. While more sophisticated farmers might need a little assistance, the Plain Sect farmers, in many cases, are starting from a place well in the past.
Still, more money is on the way: The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation just announced nearly $400,000 in grants to the Lancaster Farmland Trust to help clean up the Pequea Creek watershed, which includes Watson Run.
One Amish farmer, Sam Zook, who has a 50-head dairy farm in the Strasburg area of Lancaster County, even invited reporters on a tour of his new $150,000 manure storage shed. Interviews were OK, so long as no one took photographs of him. The Amish believe taking photos of their faces violates scripture.
Zook decided to accept state help because he couldn’t have afforded the project on his own. He said he was less worried about government fines and regulation than about what he could see for himself — that the cows’ waste was flowing into a waterway on his farm.
“I realized every time it rained, it rained on my barnyard, and it flushed my barnyard down to the stream, and it kind of bothered me,” Zook said.
At some point, it may come to pass that farmers won’t have a choice in accepting tougher regulations; the EPA has put the Chesapeake Bay on a pollution diet, and many of the reductions in nitrogen and phosphorus must come from agriculture.
Farmers can implement practices on their own, but not many of them have an extra $150,000 for a manure-storage shed, or even the smaller amounts required to put in forested buffer strips and grass waterways. And farmers may be experts in how soybeans grow, but they don’t necessarily know how to design and build the state-of-the-art infrastructure needed to control pollution. The government has people who can do that, and in many cases, they’ll do it for free or low-cost.
Lamonte Garber, a watershed restoration manager for the nonprofit Stroud Water Research Center who has spent nearly two decades working with Amish farmers, said progress is moving forward, albeit at horse-and-buggy pace.
“It alerted farmers in the area, including Amish farmers, that there was the potential of door-to-door visits and review of plans of facilities,” Garber said of Watson Run. “It was a significant message.”

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Too Clever by Half

I was trying to make a point  about the importance of organic matter, and crop rotations, but had to backtrack on some of it.



Fighting Wireworm May Save the Potato Industry


Wireworms are nothing but trouble for farmers. Voracious worms that feast on grain , fruit,  grasses, root crops, and whatever else farmers have planted. The damage is usually enough to keep produce from being acceptable on blemish free supermarket shelves.  Wireworms have forced some families to quit farming, costing others thousands of dollars.  Depending on the species they emerge as click beetles every 2 to 5 years and can fly somewhere else to do extend their damage. So Petrie have you lost your mind??

It’s how farmers are being forced to fight wireworm that I find interesting, maybe hopeful.  In Canada Thimet is the only insecticide that works, but after several extensions it’s supposed to lose its registration in 2015, with nothing in the pipeline to replace it.  So farmers are being forced to look at crop rotations with brown mustard and buckwheat, which have proven to be quite an effective way to control wireworm numbers. The crops are cut and plowed under, not harvested, and release bio-toxins that kill and control wireworm populations.   Here’s the thing. Thinking about crop rotations as a way to improve the quality of the “money maker”  crop in the second, third or fourth year of  a rotation is a welcome return to how farmers used to  think about crop rotations.  More recently, because farmers have been paid so poorly for table and processing potatoes, the second and third years of a rotation have to be money makers too, so soybeans, and corn have become popular rotation crops. They are certainly more valuable than barley or hay, but they’re harvested late with little chance for fall cover crops, and do little to improve organic matter levels  in the soil. And I can’t think of anything that’s more important to reversing the negative cycle of nitrate and pesticide leaching, anoxic rivers,  sedimentation, and now the growing need for irrigation,  than improving soil quality. And that just won’t happen unless crop rotation is taken seriously, and rotation crops are viewed as ways of improving soil structure and health,  not of keeping farmers from going bankrupt.

I had the privilege  of interviewing many of the old hands in the potato industry, the movers and leaders through the 60’s, 70’s and 1980’s (the videos can be seen on the Youtube channel of the PEI Potato Board).  They all worry about the brutal economics in the potato industry, prices they’d seen in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s while the cost of production has skyrocketed. Many worry about the shortcuts farmers have been forced to take to survive, the growth in farm size as farmers chase economies of scale. All worry about the future of the industry.  Several spoke passionately about  the crop rotations that worked for them. Yes, they’d say,  there would be a lot of sod to wrestle with in the potatoes grown after a hay crop, but you had to do it to keep the soil healthy.  Some talked about the importance of keeping cattle to have the manure to put back on the land.  All accepted that if you could break even on a rotation crop, generate a little cash at the elevators delivering grain,  that was fine, because it was the potatoes that had to pay the bills,   and quality and yield came from good soils.  These guys know what they’re talking about.

I’m not saying this is an issue on every farm, and these concerns are hardly new. The latest came from the group looking at the series of fishkills in Barclay’s Brook in West Prince:
“The Action Committee found that soil in some land
backing onto the Barclay Brook has low
organic matter levels as a result of intensive farm
management practices leading to a greater
likelihood of soil erosion and increased surface
runoff. The Action Committee understands
similar circumstances probably occur at locations
throughout the province making watercourses more
vulnerable to contaminated surface runoff.”

I really wish wireworm wasn’t the reason for farmers to think again about the proper use of crop rotations. Unfortunately wireworm is particularly fond of grass which should be an important part of rebuilding soil organic levels,  but mustard and buckwheat are both good sources of organic matter too.  All of this requires more research, some regulatory backbone to enforce crop rotation rules (including common sense and flexibility, increasing organic matter should be the yardstick), and big buyers like Cavendish Farms not counting  on rotation crops to keep farmers solvent. They’re needed  to rebuild soil quality, not backstop cheap potatoes.





Fessing Up


I have to confess to having a bad attitude towards corn, not the sweet stuff we get to enjoy for a couple of monthes in the summer, but the grain corn grown for livestock feed and increasingly for dozens of industrial uses like ethanol. It started in the 1970’s when I’d done some reporting on atrazine, a herbicide widely used with corn at the time,  one of those endocrine disrupters that’s become the most persistent contaminant in rural well water in the United States.  Atrazine was banned in Europe a decade ago.  Corn is also linked to the huge change in U.S. farm policy in the 1970’s that shifted the government’s role of maintaining stable commodity prices by buying up surpluses, and releasing holdings during shortages, to subsidizing production of certain commodities like corn and soybeans, and Earl Butz’s famous order to U.S. farmers to “plant fence post to fence post.”  All of this had a huge impact on Maritime livestock producers who couldn’t produce feedgrains as cheaply as the U.S. mid-west, and Western Canada.  More recently my attitude towards corn got worse when it became the base commodity to produce ethanol.  Corn is a starch that has to be “cooked” first to produce the sugars that can be distilled into alcohol, so it’s greenhouse gas advantage is negligible. Sugar beets, sugar cane, etc are better candidates to do this.  I then let my corn bias show in the last column when I presented it as a poor rotation crop for farmers. I’m here to acknowledge it doesn’t have to be.

When I moved to PEI in the late 1970’s I was able to let corn go. There was very little grown here because the season and heat units needed to produce reliable harvests just weren’t available on the Island. The climate hasn’t changed much but there are now shorter season varieties giving PEI farmers a chance to produce grain corn, and a drive around the country is ample evidence that many farmers are doing just that. It’s still a little risky in the Fall, not so much that the corn won’t mature, but whether farmers can harvest at the right moisture level to allow it to store properly.  Drying costs are high, and soybeans often take priority for drying at the grain elevators. 

The corn or maise plant itself is interesting and unusual. Scientists call it a “C4”, a small group of plants that are more efficient at photosynthesis, grab more CO2 out of the air, can better withstand dry conditions and heat, and under normal conditions produce more plant material than grasses and other small grains.  And something else that’s worth noting, most of the corn grown now is GMO “round-up ready” which means glyphosphate  is used as a herbicide rather than the more potentially dangerous atrazine.

Most importantly (and what I failed to acknowledge) is that corn can add a lot of organic matter to the soil.  Many farmers harvest just the cob leaving the rest of the plant (what’s called the stover) available to be disked back in, or left as a cover through the winter. A local grain corn grower in eastern PEI where there are sandier soils has seen organic levels improved after years of growing potatoes.  Some farmers harvest the whole plant as silage, but they’re almost always livestock producers with manure to put back on the land.

And there’s one other important role that corn and soybeans are playing on PEI.  They’ve given farmers other cash crop choices than potatoes and that could be increasingly important in the future. The demand for potatoes, both in processing and table markets is falling and farmers need to make smart decisions. Ignoring market trends, planting the same as always and hoping a market will be found is not a proven path to financial success, quite the opposite in fact. An over supplied potato market is nothing but financial misery.  Of course corn and soybeans are commodities too, and PEI farmers remain price takers. The price outlook for corn is not good right now with bumper crops coming off U.S. farms. 

There’s one other wrinkle when it comes to corn here. There was a PEI court case that had to decide whether corn is a row crop as defined under the Crop Rotation Act. The judge ruled it isn’t but should be seen as a “grain” crop.  That means it could be more widely used in a potato rotation even with increased enforcement. I’ll now keep a more open mind to that possibility.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

A Pesticide Morality Tale

You could hear Ed Rice trying to find the balance when he was asked about concerns for Charlottetown's water supply now that its new well field is out there in farming country.  Yes it's a concern, but no this latest fish kill isn't a risk, but yes  it's something we'll pay attention to in the future. The good people of Miltonvale have their own worries. They've hired a local watershed group to monitor water use by Charlottetown so they don't end with dry streams or wells like what's happened in the Winter River watershed.

It was one of Ed Rice's comments that caught my ear. He was being pressed about recent efforts to stop the use of pesticides on PEI. He cautioned that homeowners use many of the same pesticides as farmers.  I thought that was a courageous thing for him to say.  The easy thing for a politician, particularly one from an urban community, and one who's taken on responsibility for the quality and supply of water for Charlottetown would have been to say he'd welcome the move. He didn't and I respect that.

I've written and reported on pesticide issues for many many years, and I'm sure I'm as stuck in my own beliefs as anyone else. For what it's worth here's some of what I believe, and I'm still trying to learn:

1. I'm not trying to be stupid or hard headed, but I'm not sure what a "pesticide-free" PEI really means. I think Stewart Hill has got it right. He taught ecological agriculture at MacDonald College outside Montreal for decades.  I had invited him to lecture a class I was teaching at Carleton University in the mid 1970's. I was also an "organic" market gardener at the time (see earlier post).   He thinks pesticides have been and always will be used in agriculture, the question is which ones and how they're used. I had asked him about using captan, a fairly toxic fungicide, on seeds planted early in the Spring when it's cold and wet.  He said if it's necessary to get the seeds to germinate and grow, he had no problem with that.  His view was that as long as farmers made the effort to truly understand the pests or diseases they're fighting, and then determined the product  or action that would have the least impact on the environment, then that's what they should do. And he's still telling audiences and students  that there are examples where a targeted synthetic pesticide is better to use than a broad spectrum organic insecticide which kills every bug. I had flea beetles chewing up broccoli and cauliflower seedlings, I'd lost dozens in the last ten days. I hand picked, sprayed water, etc. Finally I dragged out some rotenone dust to kill them off.  It was that or not having any brocolli in the freezer. Did I use a pesticide? Did I also kill beneficial insects? Yup.  And if I was doing this on a commercial basis the problem would be bigger, and a solution much more necessary.


2.  Organic farmers use pesticides too, and some like Kocide and rotenone, kill fish as efficiently as the fungicides and insectcides used in conventional agriculture. The difference is that organic farmers manage their soils much more effectively, longer rotations, high organic levels, so they're much, much less risk. So preventing fish kills isn't just as an issue of "going organic", but making sure that pesticides, all pesticides, are kept out of waterways. 

3. People's fear and anger is really directed at potato farming.  I think there was a great opportunity missed in the mid 1990's as the industry expanded to supply the new french fry plants (now plant after Mccain announced it's leaving) that the government and many in the farming community resisted the common sense recommendations coming out of Elmer MacDonald's Roundtable report: the need for proper buffer zones, using organic matter as a measure of sustainable farming practices, restrictions on row cropping on sloping land, proper crop rotations, and so on.  We've waited almost twenty years for some of these to be implemented, and are still waiting on others. Would it have prevented fish kills, dead zones in rivers, nitrates in wells?  I don't know. I think it would have made these problems occasional, and manageable. Now they're the expected, and that makes it much more difficult for politicians and farm leaders to create confidence that they know what they're doing. That's when joining the "pesticide free" team seems like the only answer.   And for what it's worth, don't forget the dozens of watersheds where fish still thrive even after heavy rains,  and don't be surprised if the cause of the North River fish kill wasn't a potato field but something else. And if that's the case, no that doesn't mean everything is OK.

4. Two of the most condemned pesticides these days are neonicitinoids, and glyphosphate (our old pal Round-up), and for good reason. Here's the but. It's not as if either were introduced into a Garden of Eden that's now been poisoned.   When both were initially introduced they were replacing herbicides and insecticides that were far more damaging to the environment, and people, some of the old World War Two nerve agents, and herbicides like agent orange and paraquat.   The problem with both (and I've written a fair amount on this before)  is how they're used. GMO roundup ready crops have lead to millions of acres of farmland saturated with glyphosphate, and the same issue with the neonics, coating grain and corn seed. It's estimated that more than 80% of the neonics being used every year never get close to a real pest, but hurt beneficials like bees.

And here's a well written article from this week on what happens when pesticides aren't used properly. The really aggravating thing for me is that the pesticide companies never seem to have to answer for how their products are used, and then they benefit again when they're no longer effective.


http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/12/us/invader-storms-rural-america-shrugging-off-herbicides.html

Invader Batters Rural America, Shrugging Off Herbicides

Photo
Scott Harper, the weed expert at Harper Brothers Farms in Indiana, inspected a soybean field for invasive, herbicide-resistant weeds known as palmers. Credit Daniel Acker for The New York Times
WHEATFIELD, Ind. — The Terminator — that relentless, seemingly indestructible villain of the 1980s action movie — is back. And he is living amid the soybeans at Harper Brothers Farms.
About 100 miles northwest of Indianapolis, amid 8,000 lush acres farmed by Dave Harper, his brother Mike and their sons, the Arnold Schwarzenegger of weeds refuses to die. Three growing seasons after surfacing in a single field, it is a daily presence in a quarter of the Harper spread and has a foothold in a third more. Its oval leaves and spindly seed heads blanket roadsides and jut above orderly soybean rows like skyscrapers poking through cloud banks. It shrugs off extreme drought and heat. At up to six inches in diameter, its stalk is thick enough to damage farm equipment.
“You swear that you killed it,” said Scott Harper, Dave Harper’s son and the farm’s 28-year-old resident weed expert. “And then it gets a little green on it, and it comes right back.”
Botanists call the weed palmer amaranth. But perhaps the most fitting, if less known, name is carelessweed. In barely a decade, it has devastated Southern cotton farms and is poised to wreak havoc in the Midwest — all because farmers got careless.
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Mr. Harper uprooted a palmer by hand, the last resort in fighting the weed. Each plant can produce up to 200,000 seeds in an average field. Credit Daniel Acker for The New York Times
Palmer, as farmers nicknamed it, is the most notorious of a growing number of weeds that are immune to the gold standard of herbicides, glyphosate. Cheap, comparatively safe and deadly to many weeds, glyphosate has been a favorite ever since the Monsanto Company introduced it under the name Roundup in the mid-1970s.
After Monsanto began selling crops genetically engineered to resist glyphosate in the 1990s, the herbicide’s use soared. Farmers who once juggled an array of herbicides — what killed weeds in a cotton field might kill cornstalks in a cornfield — suddenly had a single herbicide that could be applied to almost all major crops without harming them.
There were even environmental benefits: Farmers relied less on other, more dangerous weed killers. And they abandoned techniques like tilling that discouraged weed growth, but hastened erosion and moisture loss.
But constantly dousing crops in glyphosate exacted a price. Weeds with glyphosate-resisting genetic mutations appeared faster and more often — 16 types of weed so far in the United States. A 2012 survey concluded that glyphosate-resistant weeds had infested enough acreage of American farmland to cover a plot nearly as big as Oregon, and that the total infestation had grown 51 percent in one year. Glyphosate-resistant palmers first surfaced in 2005, in a field in Macon County, Ga. Nine years later, they are in at least 24 states.
“There’s no substantive argument about whether the problem’s gotten far worse in this era of genetically resistant crops,” said Charles Benbrook, a professor and pesticide expert at Washington State University. “The advent of herbicide-tolerant crops made it possible for farmers to load up so much herbicide on one crop that it was inevitable that it would develop resistance.”
Now farmers are going back to older techniques to control weeds, using more varieties of herbicides, resuming tilling — and worse.
Palmer amaranth is the prime example. Consider the cotton fields that blanket many Southern farms: Without glyphosate, almost no herbicides can kill the weed without also damaging cotton plants. Some farmers have mowed their crops to keep palmer seeds from maturing. In 2009, Georgia spent $11 million to send laborers into a million acres of cotton fields to pull palmers out by hand.
For many farmers, including the Harpers, manual labor has become a last resort in the battle against carelessweed.
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Herbicides lose effectiveness as palmers grow. Credit Daniel Acker for The New York Times
“I consider myself a Roundup baby, and it was great,” Scott Harper said. “You didn’t have to think about anything. And now we get this weed that flips everything on its head.”
The Harpers’ 2,500-acre soybean crop is an object lesson in palmer’s adaptability and how far farmers must go just to keep it in check.
Palmer amaranths seem as if they were designed by nature to outwit herbicides and farmers. Unlike many weeds, it has male and female versions, increasing genetic diversity — and the chances of a herbicide-resistant mutation — in each new seed. And each plant is astonishingly prolific, producing up to 200,000 seeds in an average field, said Dave Mortensen, a professor of weed and plant ecology at Pennsylvania State University.
“If one out of millions or billions of seeds contains a unique trait that confers resistance to herbicide,” he said, “it doesn’t take long when a plant is that fecund for it to become the dominant gene.”
William G. Johnson, a Purdue University professor of botany and plant pathology, said the weed probably arrived at the Harpers’ farm in typical fashion: in manure, purchased as fertilizer, from cows that ate cottonseed — and, inadvertently, palmer seeds.
The Harpers initially mistook the weed for waterhemp, a close relative. Before they learned otherwise, combines had already harvested fields containing mature palmer seed pods and had spread the seed far and wide.
A glyphosate-resistant palmer is a mighty beast indeed. Its seeds can germinate any time during the growing season, so herbicide sprayed in April is useless against a palmer that appears in July. Once sprouted, palmer amaranth can grow more than two inches a day. Once it exceeds four inches, even herbicides for which it lacks resistance begin to lose their effectiveness.
The Harpers have kept palmers at bay in their 5,500 acres of corn by spraying dicamba, a weed killer that is benign to corn. Soybeans are a different matter.
Photo
Scott Harper put herbicide on an infested field. Herbicides lose effectiveness as palmers grow. Credit Daniel Acker for The New York Times
Last year, the Harpers sprayed palmer-infested fields several times with glyphosate and two other herbicides, pushing herbicide costs to $80 an acre from $15. About eight in 10 palmers died. The rest wilted for a couple of weeks, then resumed growing.
This year, they are trying a different chemical cocktail that raises herbicide costs only to $45 an acre. Their big gun, a herbicide that blocks palmers from synthesizing amino acids, was sprayed on July 3, the first of two applications allowed each summer.
“I came back from the Fourth of July weekend, and they looked dead,” Mr. Harper said. “I said, ‘I think we smoked ’em.’ My dad says, ‘Awesome.’ ” He paused. “Ten days later, there’s green coming all over them again.”
Should the second herbicide application fail, Mr. Harper said, he is unsure what to do next.
More broadly, experts in glyphosate’s travails — farmers, scientists, regulators, the herbicide industry, environmentalists — feel much the same way.
The industry has readied a new barrage of genetically engineered crops that tolerate other weed killers. The Environmental Protection Agency is set to approve plans by Dow AgroSciences to sell soybean seeds that tolerate not only glyphosate, but a much older herbicide, 2,4-D, and a third widely used herbicide, glufosinate. Monsanto hopes to market soybeans and cotton next year that resist dicamba.
Dr. Mortensen and others say the companies are simply repeating the history that made palmers resistant to glyphosate. He says natural solutions, like planting what are known as cover crops that keep light from reaching germinating palmers, may cost more but are also effective.
Mr. Harper said he believes Dr. Mortensen is right. He also said he cannot wait for Monsanto and Dow to begin hawking their new soybeans anyway.
“I’m not stupid. I know you can only ride a pony so far,” he said. “It’ll probably take another 10 years before palmer becomes a real big problem again. But that just brought me 10 years I didn’t have.”