Thursday, 9 April 2015

Bigger Not Necessarily Better

Yield is a word used a lot in farming. Bigger is usually better, but when it comes to the potato industry on PEI, the more important question is how. This is from a recent column:

Potatoes are still the dominant crop in PEI’s most important industry, so its fortunes matter to all of us.   As the late Pat Quinn said about the Toronto Maple Leafs:  “For better or worse, and whether people like it or not, it’s the most important hockey franchise in Canada.”  Love ‘em or hate ‘em , the potato industry’s challenges are our challenges, and there’s  a lot at stake.
For decades PEI was the big dog on the block in Canada. It had better quality, bigger yields than growers elsewhere in Canada, and dominated the big consumer markets for fresh potatoes in Montreal and Toronto. That changed in the mid 1990’s with the loss of an important transportation subsidy,  well financed buy local campaigns in Ontario and Quebec, and new varieties that allowed growers elsewhere to produce the “Idaho” typed russet potato that’s much in demand.  As if that wasn’t enough,  PVYn  knocked the stuffing out of the seed potato business.   Reluctantly for most,  growers now play by the rules of the french fry business, and that’s a game farmers are at risk of losing, not as badly as the Leafs, think Boston, a long proud history, many good players, demanding ownership, good coaching, but still in trouble.
With McCain gone, Irving owned Cavendish Farms is the demanding ownership and it doesn’t like what it sees: large mostly U.S. based frozen potato producers like Simplot, Lamb Weston, McCain, quickly gaining market share in burgeoning Asian markets, but more importantly buying from growers in the North-Western U.S. with bigger yields than growers here.  Yield is  a critical benchmark in the french fry business, how many hundredweight produced per acre.  The bigger the yield the less processors have to pay growers to keep them in business:  farmers get a bigger pay-weight per cost of production, or have to grow fewer acres to meet their contract. Either way, in a very competitive business with tiny margins,  yield matters a lot. 
Growers are hearing from Cavendish Farms. The company wants, expects ,  is demanding  (take your pick) growers to increase yields closer to the North American standard, from 250-300 hundredweight per acre to the industry norm south of the border, 400 and more.   But just how will this happen?  With soils on many (not all) farms battered and bruised, really the only way to do this is with water, and more fertilizer.  Water has huge political and environmental hurdles to overcome, and more fertilizer feels like a big step backwards.

Ever since the worrying royal commission on nitrates in 2008 that indicated rising nitrate levels in aquifers throughout the province, there have been many efforts to lower fertilizer use. “Nutrient management” is the new buzzword. It’s something that’s very real and very necessary.   Agrologist Steve Watts continues to do critically important research  on maintaining  quality and yields using less fertilizer, the 4R approach. I think this is what farmers have to work towards, not trying to increase yields by bumping up the fertilizer bill.

Then there’s water. Rightly or wrongly the moratorium on new irrigation wells has become a bottom line issue for many, many voters, and political parties who don’t get it right will pay a price.  I think on a watershed by watershed basis there is justification for more permits, but that’s a subtlety that will get lost in the noise of an election campaign. A month ago there was a feeling that the Liberals would get re-elected, go through some  kind of public process on a new Water Act, and a limited number of new permits would be forthcoming.  Now with political ethics, possibly corruption making headlines, all parties are feeling competitive, and fighting for every vote.  It’s hard to think of a more motherhood issue, a promise more easily made,  than protecting the quantity and quality of groundwater.

The low Canadian dollar will give Cavendish Farms some breathing room, and I hope they pass along some of this advantage to growers who can’t absorb more price cuts.  I hope the time can be used to keep the “nutrient management” and “4R” efforts gaining traction, and that this in turn can give the public more confidence that nitrate levels are falling.  Maybe Cavendish can develop  a “low input”  or “environmentally sustainable” line of frozen potato products that could play off these changes and charge a premium.  OK my feet are back on the ground. The more likely scenario is that Western U.S. growers will lose the ability to irrigate as aquifers there dry-up, and PEI becomes more competitive by default. 

There’s no Connor McDavid in any of this, no quick and easy solutions. I just want to see farmers given every opportunity to do the right things. Demanding bigger yields won’t do that.  

Saturday, 4 April 2015

Sensible Steps

The worst aspects right now of so called "industrial agriculture" is the unnecessary overuse of pesticides and antibiotics.  Low dose use of antibiotics in livestock has been around since the 1950's, and despite many warnings it's only now that health agencies are moving to limit their use, especially the antibiotics that are important to humans.  Just after the war scientists discovered that small amounts (sub-therapeutic) does of antibiotics make livestock grow more quickly. No one knows exactly why, but the worry for decades has been simple:  nature continually evolves, that includes the bacteria, weeds and other pests we want less of, and eventually resistance is built up to whatever is being used. In other words the antibiotics stop working. The overuse/resistance dynamic is just as serious with herbicides. The development of "round-up ready" gmo oilseeds and corn has led to huge overuse of what's been a useful herbicide, glyphosphate. (beyond this there is new evidence that glyphosphate can cause cancer as well). A couple of recent articles captures the deep problems caused by overuse. In one, some European countries have begun more sensible use of antibiotics in livestock, use it only when animals are sick. What a concept.

Denmark’s Drug-Free Pigs

PRESIDENT OBAMA didn’t need to issue a $1.2 billion National Action Plan for Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria, which he did last week, to figure out how the United States could reduce the antibiotic-resistant bacteria created by the country’s agriculture industry. He could have simply spent a day with Kaj Munck, a Danish hog farmer.
Mr. Munck is a husky, loquacious man who lives about an hour south of Copenhagen. His operation looks and smells a lot like the factory pig farms I have visited in the American Midwest. The 12,000 pigs he raises each year — making his operation larger than the average American producer — live in cramped stalls with hard floors inside low-slung warehouselike structures. Mr. Munck can produce pork at prices low enough to compete in the same international markets as American pork. In fact, a large number of the popular baby back ribs served in the United States are imported from Danish farms like his.
But there is one big difference between Danish hog farms and those in the United States that does meet the eye (or nose). Since 2000, Danish farmers have raised pigs without relying on regular doses of antibiotics — while in the United States, perfectly healthy pigs and other livestock are frequently given low levels of antibiotics in their food or water to prevent disease, a practice that also enhances their growth.
Such regular doses of antibiotics contribute to the development of drug-resistant “superbugs,” of the type that kill 23,000 Americans a year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One goal of the National Action Plan is to “eliminate the use of medically important antibiotics for growth promotion in food producing animals and bring other in-feed uses of antibiotics, for treatment and disease control and prevention of disease, under veterinary oversight” by 2020.
But even if the goal is met, American livestock farmers will still face far less stringent antibiotics regulations than their Danish counterparts already follow.
Leading me inside his barn, Mr. Munck unlocked a medicine cabinet that contained a dozen or so bottles of antibiotics. He said that he usually administered antibiotics to sick animals individually, but he could add medication to feed if an entire pen became infected. He told me that he could get the antibiotics only when they were prescribed by a veterinarian, and that he had to purchase them from a pharmacy.
Danish veterinarians cannot dispense antibiotics except in emergencies, removing any financial incentives to overprescribe. The pharmacy that Mr. Munck buys his drugs from enters information about his purchases into a national database that allows the government to track exactly how much of which antibiotics each vet prescribes and each farmer uses. And any antibiotics Mr. Munck acquires have to be administered or destroyed within 35 days.
Once a year, Danish veterinarians meet with government officials to discuss whether or not the amount of antibiotics they recommend is appropriate. Similarly, a farmer using unusually high amounts of drugs gets an official warning from the government and has nine months to bring his use back to acceptable levels, under the guidance of a veterinarian. Failure can result in the farmer’s being forced to reduce his herd size, and in extreme cases stop raising pigs.
Mr. Munck told me that he and other pig farmers in Denmark had no trouble with these regulations, and even supported them. “We saw a potential problem with antibiotic resistance and wanted to get ahead of the game,” he said.
The Danish pork industry did have some early problems with mortality among young pigs. But it overcame those by allowing piglets to nurse longer, by feeding them more nourishing rations and by receiving monthly preventive visits to farms by vets. Overall use of antibiotics in livestock has fallen by 50 percent in Denmark, even as the hog herd has increased significantly in size. Levels of resistant bacteria on farms tumbled. Mr. Munck said his animals experienced no more bacterial infections than they used to. And despite predictions to the contrary, pigs in Denmark gain weight as efficiently as they did before the introduction of the antibiotic controls.
Farmers still use antibiotics frequently, mostly to cure diarrhea and treat infected wounds, Mr. Munck said. But that’s the purpose of antibiotics. “The idea is to use as little antibiotic as possible but as much as needed,” he said.
Researchers at Iowa State University ran numbers to determine what it would cost American pork producers to put a Danish-style control system in place. The total was only $4.50 per animal, less than three cents more for a pound of pork — a pittance if it means keeping antibiotics that save human lives effective.

The real reason to worry about GMOs

In a recent column, the New York Times' Mark Bittman makes an important point about the controversy around genetically modified foods. "[T]o date there's little credible evidence that any food grown with genetic engineering techniques is dangerous to human health," he writes. Yet the way the technology has been used—mainly, to engineer crops that can withstand herbicides—is deeply problematic, he argues.
Here's why I think Bittman's point is crucial. The below chart, from the pro-biotech International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, gives a snapshot of what types of GMO crops farmers were planting as of 2012. In more recent reports, the ISAAA doesn't break out its data in the same way, but it's a fair assumption that things are roughly similar three years later, given that no GMO blockbusters have entered the market since.
Chart: The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications,
If you add up all the herbicide-tolerant crops on the list, you find that about 69 percent of global GM acres are planted with crops engineered to withstand herbicides. But that's an undercount, because the GM products listed as "stacked traits" are engineered to repel insects (the Bt trait) and to withstand herbicides. Adding those acres in, the grand total comes to something like 84 percent of global biotech acres devoted to crops that can flourish when doused with weed killers—chemicals that are sold by the very same companies that sell the GMO seeds.
As Bittman points out, almost all of the herbicide-tolerant crops on the market to date have been engineered to resist a single herbicide, glyphosate. And weeds have evolved to resist that herbicide, forcing farmers to apply heavier doses and or added older, more toxic chemicals to the mix.
Rather than reconsider the wisdom of committing tens of millions of acres to crops developed to resist a single herbicide, the industry plans to double down: Monsanto and rival Dow will both be marketing crops next yearengineered to withstand both glyphosate and more-toxic herbicides—even though scientists like Penn State University's David Mortensen areconvinced that the new products are "likely to increase the severity of resistant weeds" and "facilitate a significant increase in herbicide use."
Meanwhile, unhappily, the World Health Organization has recently decreed glyphosate, sold by Monsanto under the Roundup brand name, a "probable carcinogen"—a designation Monsanto is vigorously trying to get rescinded.
So, given that 20 years after GM crops first appeared on farm fields, something like four-fifths of global biotech acres are still devoted to herbicide-tolerant crops, Bittman's unease about how the technology has been deployed seems warranted. It's true that genetically altered apples andpotatoes that don't brown as rapidly when they're sliced will soon hit the market. They may prove to be a benign development. But it's doubtful that they'll spread over enough acres to rival herbicide-tolerant crops anytime soon. And humanity has thrived for millennia despite the scourge of fast-browning apples and potatoes. The same isn't true for ever-increasing deluges of toxic herbicides.

Friday, 27 March 2015

Needles in Potatoes: The Costs Keep Rising

As a reporter I always admired people who fought for what they believe in, even those who worked around the edges of the law.  I wasn't sure what to think when I first heard about needles found in potatoes.  The "how" was kind of interesting to think through, the "who" had a few candidates, and the "why"  had some logic, but when I had the chance to talk to some of the people directly involved I found it way more troubling (and making potato industry people upset and worried was obviously just what was wanted). I did write this column back in January, and this week I noticed a poster that reminded me this is still an outstanding issue. More than that it's now costing potato packers millions as they gear up to protect their markets. If enriching German and American security machine manufacturers was the goal of this campaign, it's succeeded, but I'm not sure what else it's done.

Needles Not the Answer

It was a pretty good year for people concerned with the environmental footprint of the potato industry.  Horace Carver listened to those who want to retain landownership regulations, and not increase the current limits for land that can be cropped. Just over a year ago the government was ready to end a decade long moratorium on new high capacity irrigation wells, but public outcry, an avalanche of newspaper opinion pieces, and dozens of presentations to a legislative committee put the brakes on. The government has promised a comprehensive process including public hearings, and new research to develop a Water Act before considering new permits again.  And there’s more: the new ability of major municipalities to outlaw cosmetic pesticide use (more restrictive than some wanted),  the closure of the McCain French Fry Plant, west prince farmer Warren Ellis’s steep fine for a series of fish kills in Barclay Brook, the purchase of Ellis’s land by the province and Cavendish Farms and handing it over to the Trout River Watershed group, continued growth in the organic food sector, the ongoing research by Steve Watts showing that farmers can cut back on fertilizer use and produce the same or better quality and size in their crop and cut down on nitrate pollution. Yes there was a serious fish kill in the North River, but it wasn’t caused by a potato grower. So it’s fair to say that the “green team” made some gains.  And sticking needles into potatoes had nothing to do with any of this. 

This isn’t going to be an easy  year for potato growers, but it’s not because of the widespread publicity of a dozen or so discoveries of needles in PEI potatoes.  There is simply an oversupply in North America.  The only “needle” victims are the Linkletter family, and their employees. Half the staff has been laid off for monthes in what would normally be a very busy time leading up to American Thanksgiving, and Christmas. Liability insurance may cover some of this, but the Linkletters are facing huge costs recalling thousands of pounds of potatoes, and will now spend more than two hundred thousand as well on metal detecting  equipment. “Link” potatoes has an excellent reputation for quality and has had it for decades, but the Linkletters know that another round of needles found in potato bags could easily kill their fresh market business for good.  There are simply too many other good suppliers out there to take their place.

If the person or group behind the needles wants to hurt the Linkletters directly for whatever reason, he/she/they are succeeding, but don’t forget to include the dozens of packing plant workers and their families punished by this as well. If the idea is to intimidate the potato industry by taking on the most high profile grower in the province (Gary Linkletter,  now past-chair of the PEI Potato Board) it hasn’t succeeded. The industry is simply too big, and market forces too powerful for this to have much impact. If anything it’s brought the industry closer together by the joint effort to raise reward money.  If the action is to get the government to work harder to protect natural resources, again it’s failed. It’s the efforts by many individuals and community groups to push the government to improve and properly enforce regulations that has created some momentum, not sabotaging a handful of potatoes.

It’s been interesting watching the national media pick up on this story. The contrast between the bucolic nature of PEI, its natural beauty, and heavy pesticide use and dead fish is just too tempting for journalists from away to ignore. It took a National Post reporter to finally state what was being talked about in the coffee shops: could this be direct action by a committed environmentalist or environmental group? The usual suspects were spoken to. They denied it, and I believe them, but this certainly would explain the considerable resources and time the RCMP has thrown at the case.   It may seem like overkill, but federal agencies like the RCMP, and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency must be seen as aggressively overseeing food production to keep the Americans happy.  Potato growers and packers in Maine are always on the lookout for trouble in PEI and New Brunswick in the hopes of slowing down Canadian imports. It doesn’t end there. After 9-11, the new Department of Homeland Security played hardball with anyone shipping food into the United States. Line workers and truck drivers had to be screened,   food tracing protocols had to be implemented.  All of  this is now the cost of doing business, costs that can’t be passed on to consumers.  And now checking for needles in potatoes has become a new cost of doing business for at least one big packing operation.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

If You Don't Read Anything Else Today...

Everyone should have to read this once a year.. just to remind ourselves what's important:

and tonight (Mar 26th)  Dirt:The Movie is being shown at the Farm Centre on University Avenue in Charlottetown.. beginning at 7PM.. donations for the Food Security Network requested at the door

We’re treating soil like dirt. It’s a fatal mistake, because all human life depends on it | George Monbiot

Imagine a wonderful world, a planet on which there was no threat of climate breakdown, no loss of freshwater, no antibiotic resistance, no obesity crisis, no terrorism, no war. Surely, then, we would be out of major danger? Sorry. Even if everything else were miraculously fixed, we’re finished if we don’t address an issue considered so marginal and irrelevant that you can go for months without seeing it in a newspaper.
It’s literally and – it seems – metaphorically, beneath us. To judge by its absence from the media, most journalists consider it unworthy of consideration. But all human life depends on it. We knew this long ago, but somehow it has been forgotten. As a Sanskrit text written in about 1500BC noted: “Upon this handful of soil our survival depends. Husband it and it will grow our food, our fuel and our shelter and surround us with beauty. Abuse it and the soil will collapse and die, taking humanity with it.”
The issue hasn’t changed, but we have. Landowners around the world are now engaged in an orgy of soil destruction so intense that, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, the world on average has just 60 more years of growing crops. Even in Britain, which is spared the tropical downpours that so quickly strip exposed soil from the land, Farmers Weekly reports, we have “only 100 harvests left”.

To keep up with global food demand, the UN estimates, 6m hectares (14.8m acres) of new farmland will be needed every year. Instead, 12m hectares a year are lost through soil degradation. We wreck it, then move on, trashing rainforests and other precious habitats as we go. Soil is an almost magical substance, a living system that transforms the materials it encounters, making them available to plants. That handful the Vedic master showed his disciples contains more micro-organisms than all the people who have ever lived on Earth. Yet we treat it like, well, dirt.
The techniques that were supposed to feed the world threaten us with starvation. A paper just published in the journal Anthropocene analyses the undisturbed sediments in an 11th-century French lake. It reveals that the intensification of farming over the past century has increased the rate of soil erosion sixtyfold.
Another paper, by researchers in the UK, shows that soil in allotments – the small patches in towns and cities that people cultivate by hand – contains a third more organic carbon than agricultural soil and 25% more nitrogen. This is one of the reasons why allotment holders produce between four and 11 times more food per hectare than do farmers.
Whenever I mention this issue, people ask: “But surely farmers have an interest in looking after their soil?” They do, and there are many excellent cultivators who seek to keep their soil on the land. There are also some terrible farmers, often absentees, who allow contractors to rip their fields to shreds for the sake of a quick profit. Even the good ones are hampered by an economic and political system that could scarcely be better designed to frustrate them.

This is the International Year of Soils, but you wouldn’t know it. In January, the Westminster government published a new set of soil standards, marginally better than those they replaced, but wholly unmatched to the scale of the problem. There are no penalities for compromising our survival except a partial withholding of public subsidies. Yet even this pathetic guidance is considered intolerable by the National Farmers’ Union, which greeted them with bitter complaints. Sometimes the NFU seems to me to exist to champion bad practice and block any possibility of positive change.
Few sights are as gruesome as the glee with which the NFU celebrated the death last year of the European soil framework directive, the only measure with the potential to arrest our soil-erosion crisis. The NFU, supported by successive British governments, fought for eight years to destroy it, then crowed like a shedful of cockerels when it won. Looking back on this episode, we will see it as a parable of our times.
Soon after that, the business minister, Matthew Hancock, announced that he was putting “business in charge of driving reform”: trade associations would be able “to review enforcement of regulation in their sectors.” The NFU was one the first two bodies granted this privilege. Hancock explained that this “is all part of our unambiguously pro-business agenda to increase the financial security of the British people.” But it doesn’t increase our security, financial or otherwise. It undermines it.
The government’s deregulation bill, which has now almost completed its passage through parliament, will force regulators – including those charged with protecting the fabric of the land – to “have regard to the desirability of promoting economic growth”. But short-term growth at the expense of public protection compromises long-term survival. This “unambiguously pro-business agenda” is deregulating us to death.
There’s no longer even an appetite for studying the problem. Just oneuniversity – Aberdeen – now offers a degree in soil science. All the rest have been closed down.
This is what topples civilisations. War and pestilence might kill large numbers of people, but in most cases the population recovers. But lose the soil and everything goes with it.
Now, globalisation ensures that this disaster is reproduced everywhere. In its early stages, globalisation enhances resilience: people are no longer dependent on the vagaries of local production. But as it proceeds, spreading the same destructive processes to all corners of the Earth, it undermines resilience, as it threatens to bring down systems everywhere.

Almost all other issues are superficial by comparison. What appear to be great crises are slight and evanescent when held up against the steady trickling away of our subsistence.
The avoidance of this issue is perhaps the greatest social silence of all. Our insulation from the forces of nature has encouraged a belief in the dematerialisation of our lives, as if we no longer subsist on food and water, but on bits and bytes. This is a belief that can be entertained only by people who have never experienced serious hardship, and who are therefore unaware of the contingency of existence.
It’s not as if we are short of solutions. While it now seems that ploughing of any kind is incompatible with the protection of the soil, there are plenty of means of farming without it. Independently, in several parts of the world, farmers have been experimenting with zero-tillage (also known as conservation agriculture), often with extraordinary results.
There are dozens of ways of doing it: we need never see bare soil again. But in the UK, as in most rich nations, we have scarcely begun to experiment with the technique, despite the best efforts of the magazine Practical Farm Ideas.
Even better are some of the methods that fall under the heading ofpermaculture – working with complex natural systems rather than seeking to simplify or replace them. Pioneers such as Sepp Holzer and Geoff Lawtonhave achieved remarkable yields of fruit and vegetables in places that seemed unfarmable: 1,100m above sea level in the Austrian alps, for example, or in the salt-shrivelled Jordanian desert.
But, though every year our government spends £450m on agricultural research and development – much of it on techniques that wreck our soils – there is no mention of permaculture either on the websites of the two main funding bodies (NERC and BBSRC) or in any other department.
The macho commitment to destructive short-termism appears to resist all evidence and all logic. Never mind life on Earth; we’ll plough on regardless.