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.

Invader Batters Rural America, Shrugging Off Herbicides

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.
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.
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.
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.”

Monday, 11 August 2014

Good Life but not a Living

I did it for four years in the 1970's and was always one truck breakdown from bankruptcy. If I hadn't been growing some of that "wacky tobacky" I'd have lost the ten acres of poor farmland I was trying to make a living off of. Market gardening, small scale farming, whatever you want to call it is very hard work with very few rewards.  It was the beans that always got me. You'd spend thirty minutes picking 15 pounds, and know the reward would be about five bucks.  I was very lucky. Through bizarre and undeserved circumstances I ended up making  a living writing and talking about growing food instead. I pay back by always giving farmers more than they're asking for, and trying to remind people that if we want these young headstrong farmers to keep at it we've got to find some way to make sure they're properly paid. This was captured in a good piece in the New York Times today. It's a conversation I've heard many times amongst market gardeners here.

Don’t Let Your Children Grow Up to Be Farmers

NEW HAVEN — AT a farm-to-table dinner recently, I sat huddled in a corner with some other farmers, out of earshot of the foodies happily eating kale and freshly shucked oysters. We were comparing business models and profit margins, and it quickly became clear that all of us were working in the red.
The dirty secret of the food movement is that the much-celebrated small-scale farmer isn’t making a living. After the tools are put away, we head out to second and third jobs to keep our farms afloat. Ninety-one percent of all farm households rely on multiple sources of income. Health care, paying for our kids’ college, preparing for retirement? Not happening. With the overwhelming majority of American farmers operating at a loss — the median farm income was negative $1,453 in 2012 — farmers can barely keep the chickens fed and the lights on.
Others of us rely almost entirely on Department of Agriculture or foundation grants, not retail sales, to generate farm income. And young farmers, unable to afford land, are increasingly forced into neo-feudal relationships, working the fields of wealthy landowners. Little wonder the median age for farmers and ranchers is now 56.
My experience proves the trend. To make ends meet as a farmer over the last decade, I’ve hustled wooden crafts to tourists on the streets of New York, driven lumber trucks, and worked part time for any nonprofit that could stomach the stink of mud on my boots. Laden with college debt and only intermittently able to afford health care, my partner and I have acquired a favorite pastime in our house: dreaming about having kids. It’s cheaper than the real thing.
But what about the thousands of high-priced community-supported agriculture programs and farmers’ markets that have sprouted up around the country? Nope. These new venues were promising when they proliferated over a decade ago, but now, with so many programs to choose from, there is increasing pressure for farmers to reduce prices in cities like my hometown, New Haven. And while weekend farmers’ markets remain precious community spaces, sales volumes are often too low to translate into living wages for your much-loved small-scale farmer.
Especially in urban areas, supporting your local farmer may actually mean buying produce from former hedge fund managers or tax lawyers who have quit the rat race to get some dirt under their fingernails. We call it hobby farming, where recreational “farms” are allowed to sell their products at the same farmers’ markets as commercial farms. It’s all about property taxes, not food production. As Forbes magazine suggested to its readers in its 2012 Investment Guide, now is the time to “farm like a billionaire,” because even a small amount of retail sales — as low as $500 a year in New Jersey — allows landowners to harvest more tax breaks than tomatoes.
On top of that, we’re now competing with nonprofit farms. Released from the yoke of profit, farms like Growing Power in Milwaukee and Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, N.Y., are doing some of the most innovative work in the farming sector, but neither is subject to the iron heel of the free market. Growing Power alone received over $6.8 million in grants over the last five years, and its produce is now available in Walgreens stores. Stone Barns was started with a $30 million grant from David Rockefeller. How’s a young farmer to compete with that?
As one grower told me, “When these nonprofit farms want a new tractor, they ask the board of directors, but we have to go begging to the bank.”
And then there are the chefs. Restaurants bait their menus with homages to local food, attracting flocks of customers willing to pay 30 bucks a plate. But running a restaurant is a low-margin, cutthroat business, and chefs have to pay the bills, too. To do so, chefs often use a rule of thumb: Keep food costs to 30 percent of the price of the meal. But organic farming is an even higher-risk, higher-cost venture, so capping the farmer’s take to a small sliver of the plate ensures that working the land remains a beggar’s game.
The food movement — led by celebrity chefs, advocacy journalists, students and NGOs — is missing, ironically, the perspective of the people doing the actual work of growing food. Their platform has been largely based on how to provide good, healthy food, while it has ignored the core economic inequities and contradictions embedded in our food system.
Unlike our current small-bore campaigns, previous food movements of the 1880s, 1930s and 1970s were led by highly organized farmers’ organizations — like the American Agricultural Movement, National Farmers Union and Colored Farmers’ National Alliance — trailblazing new paths for the economy.
They went toe to toe with Big Ag: crashing shareholder meetings; building co-ops and political parties; and lobbying for price stabilization. In the late 1970s, for example, small-scale family farmers organized a series of protests under the slogan “Parity Not Charity,” demanding a moratorium on foreclosures, as well as the stabilization of crop prices to ensure that farmers could make a living wage. They mobilized thousands of fellow farmers to direct action, including the 1979 Tractorcade, where 900 tractors — some driven thousands of miles — descended on Washington to shut down the nation’s capital.
It’s not the food movement’s fault that we’ve been left behind. It has turned food into one of the defining issues of our generation. But now it’s time for farmers to shape our own agenda. We need to fight for loan forgiveness for college grads who pursue agriculture; programs to turn farmers from tenants into landowners; guaranteed affordable health care; and shifting subsidies from factory farms to family farms. We need to take the lead in shaping a new food economy by building our own production hubs and distribution systems. And we need to support workers up and down the supply chain who are fighting for better wages so that their families can afford to buy the food we grow.
But none of these demands will be met until we start our own organizations — as in generations past — and shape a vision of a new food economy that ensures that growing good food also means making a good living.


We can’t stomach the real cost of food

Elizabeth Renzetti

I’m going to apologize right now if you’re eating breakfast, particularly if it includes a nice bit of bacon and a lovely runny egg. Look away now, because this column is about the crappy things we do to animals in our pursuit of a cheap breakfast – or lunch, or dinner, or one of the 60 snacks that seem to fall between.
I’m a meat eater, an omnivore, a slurper of chicken soup and a cruncher of bacon, but sometimes I wonder how I can continue when faced with the reality of animals’ largely miserable journey from feedlot to plate. Like many people, I feel a momentary revulsion whenever I see one of those undercover videos of chicks being thrown live into grinders, pigs unable to turn in their crates and cows beaten with iron bars. Then, a day later, I’m glad I have enough loose change in my wallet to buy a club sandwich.
Those videos, which tell the story of the real costs associated with cheap, factory-farmed food, are painful to watch. They are shaming. And, for that reason, they are also under threat in the United States, where so-called “ag-gag” laws punish anyone who goes undercover at a farm or processing plant to take surreptitious video (the term “ag-gag” was coined by The New York Times food writer Mark Bittman.)
Seven states in the U.S. have these laws, which punish whistle-blowers who either try to expose cruel practices, or who falsify their applications to get jobs in the agriculture industry (which is how activists capture their evidence). Nearly 20 other states have tried to pass similar legislation.
You might have seen some of the video that these laws would block, such as the footage of cows being rammed with a forklift, shot secretly by the U.S. Humane Society in 2007. That particular exposé of a California slaughterhouse and its cruel, unhealthy practices led to the largest meat recall in U.S. history.
In Idaho and Utah, a disparate group – including animal-rights and First Amendment activists, alongside food-safety groups and unions – have launched challenges to the ag-gag laws in federal courts. In Washington, investigative journalist Will Potter has a successful Kickstarter campaign called “Drone on the Farm” to subvert ag-gag laws by using airborne cameras to photograph factories from above.
But their opponents, who raise the meat and bring it to market, have deep pockets, and rely on the public’s desire for cheap chicken to outweigh its passing disgust. (In both Canada and the U.S., consumption of red meat has fallen over the past three decades, but demand for poultry has soared, if you’ll pardon a bad pun.)
As the Guardian newspaper wrote in recent undercover exposé of vile conditions in U.K. chicken-processing plants, where two-thirds of fresh chicken is infected with the potentially toxic campylobacter bacteria, “poultry firms and retailers are locked in to an economic structure of their own making in their race to produce the cheapest possible chicken.” But who demands the cut-rate nugget and the fire-sale fajita? That would be us, the consumers.
We may not have ag-gag laws in Canada, but we still rely on the undercover surveillance of activist groups like Mercy for Animals to expose the dirty links in our food chain. In two recent high-profile cases, Mercy for Animals revealed alleged abuses (and got action) that would otherwise have been overlooked. Its undercover investigators released a video showing the suffering of live turkeys at Hybrid Turkeys in Ontario, which led to 11 charges of animal cruelty being laid against the company.
At Chilliwack Cattle Sales, the country’s largest dairy producer, Mercy for Animals captured footage of cows being beaten and abused with farm machinery by young employees who whooped with glee. The question “who tortures cows for fun” is not one I am equipped to address, but at least when I watched the footage I was pretty sure I could identify the dumb animals in the frame. Those workers were fired, and the company’s milk temporarily boycotted. Once again, public outrage soon faded.
I’m sure Mercy for Animals would like us all to turn vegan so they could hang up their cameras, but this is not likely to happen in the near future. In the meantime, we could at least acknowledge the price we pay for convenience, and cost-saving, and have the guts to look it in the eye.

Friday, 11 July 2014

Now We're Getting Into It

There's been some good reporting on the use of neonicotinoids, the most widely used insecticide, found on everything from flea collars for pets, to seed coating on the most widely grown crops, soybeans and corn.  It replaced a class of pesticides called organphosphates which are close chemical relatives to nerve gases developed in the second world war, and therefore toxic to mammals (people). The neonicotinoids  are relatively safer for us, but have a debilitating impact on the behavior of bees, and are clearly linked to the a huge jump in bee mortality around the world.  Ontario has now announced it will bring in restrictions on its use, following a similar move in Europe. Commercial grain farmers are fighting back, and this week the Conference Board of Canada jumped in with it's own report, partly funded by grain farmers, and Crop Life Canada, the trade association for the large pesticide manufacturers.  PEI potato growers and other farmers  do use a neonicotinoid called imidacloprid as a systemic pesticide when planting.  The upside is there isn't the need for insecticide spraying, and fortunately bees have little interest in potato flowers as a source of pollen, but there is growing evidence that  neonicotinoids remain active for years, and even at very low levels can negatively impact bee behavior.  Here are some recent stories on new developments, and a column I wrote a few months ago.

Pesticide linked to bee deaths to be restricted in Ontario

Ontario intends to become the first province to restrict the use of a controversial pesticide linked to bee deaths, requiring farmers and other commercial growers to apply for permits to plant seeds treated with neonicotinoid insecticides.
The government wants to limit the blanket use of the seed treatment, while balancing the protection of insect pollinators with the needs of farmers to guard their crops and livelihoods against insects.
The provincial agriculture ministry will soon begin holding meetings with farmers, beekeepers and pesticide makers with the goal of having a licensing system in place by the fall, when growers order seeds for next year.
“We are committed to working with stakeholders to develop a system that targets the use of neonicotinoid-treated seed only to areas or circumstances where there is demonstrated need,” said Jeff Leal, Ontario’s Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs.
“Our intention is to work with the industry to move away from the widespread, indiscriminate use of neonicotinoid-based pesticides,” he said.
“Ideally, we would have a structure in place for the 2015 planting season – that is what we are working toward.”
Neonicotinoids, – neonics for short – protect seeds and plants from worms and other crop-destroying insects, and have been blamed by several studies and Health Canada for the widespread collapse in colonies of honey bees, butterflies and other pollinators.
Bees are exposed to neonicotinoids in two ways: by eating the pollen, or by ingesting or carrying back to the hive the neonic-infused field dust kicked up by the tractor and planter. A University of Saskatchewan biologist found the chemicals in the province’s streams, ditches and insects, and even up the food chain in birds. To reduce the dust, neonic suppliers such as Bayer AG and Syngenta have begun supplying the seeds with a wax-based lubricant, under the direction of Health Canada. But the lubricant, combined with modified planting machines, reduces dust by only 20 per cent.
The use of neonicotinoids has been banned temporarily in Europe, but are unregulated in Canada and the United States. Ontario does not have the power to ban pesticides, which are regulated by Health Canada, but the province can control or ban their sale.
The connection between bee deaths and the pesticides is murky. Some studies point to parasitic mites and viruses as the more likely causes of bee deaths, in addition to winter starvation and loss of habitat. Some say insects do not absorb lethal doses of the insecticide through pollen, though beekeepers and others maintain even small amounts can weaken bees and make them susceptible to other maladies. However, beekeepers in Western Canada have not seen their colonies collapse, even though their hives feed on the flowers of canola, a crop that is treated with neonicotinoids.
Most of the bee deaths have been concentrated in Ontario, a province with the warm summers best suited to growing corn, a grain used in biofuels and animal feed. Ontario grows more than 60 per cent of the country’s corn, and corn is thought to be most closely linked to the province’s bee deaths. The irregular shape and size of the seeds, combined with the compressed-air planters, make the planting process quite dusty.
Beekeepers in Ontario say their winter losses have risen to as high as 50 per cent from 15 per cent before neonicotinoids became popular, and many want the pesticide banned. However, that view is not shared by all beekeepers in the province, nor the Canadian Honey Council, which represents 7,000 apiarists across the country.
Rod Scarlett, executive director of the group said he welcomes a reduction in the use of neonicotinoids. But he doubts the effectiveness of a licensing system because farmers and government officials might not know at the beginning of the season where the pesticide is or isn’t needed.
“We want to ensure farmers don’t suffer,” Mr. Scarlett said in an interview from his office near Edmonton.
Growers of flowers, fruits and vegetables are also heavy users of the insecticide. Neonicotinoid proponents note the chemical is not absorbed by humans, and it is much more effective, cheaper and safer than the older insecticides it replaced.
“Even the crop protection companies will tell you neonics kills bees. They are designed to be an insecticide,” Mr. Scarlett said. “The bigger question in the mind of the Canadian Honey Council is, what’s next? How do we mitigate the risk? If that product isn’t available for farmers to use, do they go back to organophosphates, which are far worse for mammals and insects?”
Ontario is home to about 3,000 of the country’s 7,000 beekeepers. Most beekeepers know to keep their bees away from corn fields during planting. But given the prevalence of the crop, and the high density of Ontario’s farmland, this is often not possible, Mr. Scarlett said.
Ontario has taken other steps to support the honey industry, providing $105 per hive to those who lose 40 per cent of their bees, and committing $1.2-million to research on pollinator health and farming methods.

Neonics restrictions risk killing some Ontario grain farms: Conference Board

By | Jul 10, 2014

Ontario’s plans to move away from a controversial – yet highly popular – class of pesticides believed to be killing bees risk costing the province’s grain farmers millions of dollars in lost acreages, a new Conference Board of Canada report warned Thursday.
“We estimate that such a restriction [on neonicotinoids] would cause farms to exit the market or reduce acreage, costing Ontario farmers more than $630 million annually in lost revenue and reducing Ontario’s GDP by nearly $440 million,” the report reads.
Neonicotinoids – or neonics – are used as a coating on corn, soybean and canola seeds. Systemic in nature, the insecticides permeate the entire plant, protecting it from harmful pests. The chemicals are developed by Bayer and Syngenta.
The report comes just days after Ontario’s Agriculture Minister Jeff Leal announced he plans to restrict the use of neonics, a move that would see the province become the first in Canada to regulate the insecticide.
The move has been heralded by most Ontario beekeepers, who argue the current level of bee deaths is unsustainable. Grain farmers, along with a handful of commercial beekeepers, though, are convinced the restrictions will mean lower yields, with some farmers forced out of business.
“Farm income is not evenly distributed. Some farmers are in a strong financial position, while others break even or operate at a loss,” the report notes.
“Depending on their financial performance, farms will likely either reduce their production or exit the industry in response to higher production costs, lowers crop yields, or a combination of both,” if tougher regulations are imposed, the board warned.
A restriction, the report adds, would put Ontario farmers at a competitive disadvantage because “no restriction on their use has been implemented in Canada or the United States.”
The move would be particularly devastating for Ontario corn and soybean growers who would see higher input costs in a market already dominated by larger American growers, the report cautioned. Corn and soybeans are the two largest grain and oilseed crops grown in Ontario, worth some $3.5 billion in farm cash receipts in 2012.
Farmers would also be forced to purchase more expensive insecticides should Ontario follow through on plans to restrict the chemical,” the report reads. And, while some alternatives are available, the report warned neonics are also “used to control some insects for which there is no alternative.”
Instead, growers would be forced to use foliar sprays (sprayed onto the plant’s leaves during growth), the report argues, which can be less effective.
The eighty-page Conference Board report was funded in part by the Grain Farmers of Ontario and CropLife Canada – two proponents of the use of neonicotinoid pesticides.
The study was launched at the request of Grain Farmers of Ontario, who asked the Conference Board of Canada to conduct an “independent economic analysis of a hypothetical restriction” on neonics.
Highly controversial, neonics are at the heart of a divisive and public debate within Canada’s farming community. Beekeepers, environmentalists and several scientists insist the chemicals are responsible for major bee deaths – averaging around 30 per cent per year – losses they say are simply unsustainable.
They want the insecticides banned for a minimum of four years – a move that would see Canada fall in step with the European Union. The EU imposed a two-year moratorium on three neonicotinoid pesticides in 2013 – a moratorium many expect will be extended past its 2015 deadline.
The pesticides are currently being reviewed by Health Canada’s Pest Management Agency (PMRA) – the body responsible for regulating pesticide used in Canada.
While their final report is not expected until sometime in 2015, preliminary findings by the agency in September 2013 determined contaminated dust during planting has contributed to bee deaths in Ontario and Quebec.
As a result of their findings, the agency ordered grain farmers to use a new seed lubricant – used to ease the flow of seeds through the planter – during the 2014 planting season. The new lubricant is meant to reduce the amount of dust created. Its effectiveness, though, is still unknown.
The Senate Agriculture and Forestry committee is currently conducting a detailed and lengthy study on bee health. Their final report is expected in December 2014.
Meanwhile, the federal government has repeatedly insisted it will not consider restricting the use of neonics until the PMRA report is made public or the science becomes more “conclusive.”

All abuzz over neonics debate

By | Jul 10, 2014

Ontario farm fields are buzzing this summer – not with bees, but with controversy. At issue is a proposed provincial ban on the sale of neonicotinoids, a type of pesticide that protects crops but stands accused of killing bees. Bee farmers claim it has decimated their hives, while grain farmers call their accusations junk science. And now a Conference Board of Canada report warns that the proposed ban would force some farmers out of business, and cost farmers – and the province – hundreds of millions in lost revenue.
Neonocotinoids, or neonics, have been around for two decades. Instead of spraying them on their fields, which can affect other crops and organisms, farmers purchase seed pre-coated with the compound, and the product is present throughout the plant. In Canada, they are heavily used in the west for grain crops: some 19 million acres of canola, for example, are pollinated by bees, and 100 percent treated with neonicotinoids.
Between 2007 and 2012 the Canadian Pest Management Regulatory Agency reported no bee kills associated with neonics in all of western Canada. There have been some reported issues in corn fields with corn dust affecting bee populations. Consequently, last year the PMRA proposed not to ban the product, but to use different seeding techniques to eliminate the dust.
However, in Ontario, many bee growers are convinced that neonics are killing their bees. The Ontario Beekeeper Association’s website is awash in articles about the evils of neonicotinoids. At the same time, other studies suggest that fungicides are a far greater threat to bee health. Other suspects in mass bee deaths include harsh winters, viruses and the varroa mite, a tiny parasitic insect which feeds on the bees “blood” and causes them to become prone to infections.
The bee population in Canada has actually grown, from 600,000 colonies in 2000 to 700,000 in 2012. Around the world, bee colonies are also increasing, despite the increasing use of the products.
The Ontario law would bring the province in line with the European Union, which voted to ban neonics because of alleged bee deaths. What Canadians may not know is that the country that drove the European ban on neonics, France, did so not for reasons of science, but politics. Domestic pressure by French environmentalists had pushed that country to ban the substance, which disadvantaged their farmers, and led France to seek an EU ban to level the playing field. The French went so far as to issue a press release that misrepresented the data on neonics and bees (which did not support a ban) in their efforts. At the end of 2013, a two-year EU ban took effect.
Recent evidence is making many Europeans rethink the ban. Research published this spring in the Journal of the Entomological Society of America found that soybean and cotton plants grown from neonic-treated seed had no traces of neonics in soybean flowers or cotton nectar. They did find microscopic traces of neonics in corn at levels of 2.3 parts per billion, levels so small that the American EPA considers them insignificant. One of the study’s authors, Dr. Gus Lorenz, concluded that neonics are “not being expressed in the reproductive parts of the plants.” Canadian researcher Cynthia Scott-Dupree of the University of Guelph reached similar conclusions, finding “no effects or “poor performance” in treatment colonies” of bees who feasted on neonicotinoid-treated crops.
Studies that have established negative effects have been done in the lab, exposing bees directly to the chemical, in a manner that would not arguably happen when they pollinate treated plants. Some researchers claim that over time, “sublethal” exposure in the field would achieve the same effect. This flies in the face, however, of sheer numbers: the bee population in Canada has actually grown, from 600,000 colonies in 2000 to 700,000 colonies in 2012. Around the world, bee colonies are also increasing, despite the increasing use of the products.
What would happen if Ontario bans neonics – and other provinces follow suit? Farmers would turn to other pesticides, such as organophosphates and pyrethroids, both of which have been proven toxic to bees, and which aren’t exactly embraced by environmentalist for human consumption, either. If the Wynne government rushes to judgement on neonics, it risks hurting crop farmers and consumers, by lowering yields and increasing prices. And that buzzing they hear won’t be bees, but angry voters.




Time to Take Their Own Advice

Pesticide companies are hard to love. They make a lot of money even when their customers don’t, and whatever the science says there’s a gnawing feeling amongst many that pesticide use is behind growing cancer numbers and environmental degradation.  

The companies play the public relations game as well as anyone.  When family doctors promote the idea that cosmetic use of pesticides should be banned, you can bet that Crop Life Canada, the trade association representing developers and distributors of pesticides, will argue that all products are approved by Health Canada, and if used properly pose no risk.

We will hear more from Crop Life in the months ahead as debate heats up over the use of neonicotinoids, the widely used family of  insecticides that’s been linked to bee deaths. Neonicotinoids are facing regulatory reviews in Europe, new label requirements in the United States, and a growing social media campaign opposing their use here in Canada.  

Crop Life should pay attention to a section of its own website that could help us understand the risks of neonicotinoids, and how they might be used more safely:

The responsible use of crop protection products is undertaken within the context of promoting Integrated Pest Management strategies, with the underlying principles that a crop protection product should be used only when necessary – using the right tool at the right time, in the right place and in the right way.

That’s in fact close to what Rachael Carson, the godmother of modern environmentalism was saying in Silent Spring:

"It’s not my contention that chemical pesticides must never be used.  I do contend that we have put poisonous and biologically potent chemicals indiscriminately into the hands of  persons largely or wholly ignorant of their potential for harm... "

That’s not how neonicotinoids are used.  Seeds are coated  with the insecticide before planting and every stalk or plant becomes a source of  the pesticide. There are benefits to this, farmers don’t need to regularly spray during the summer, but it’s still a far cry from “Integrated Pest Management” called for by Crop Life: sampling to find if insect levels are serious enough to need a pesticide and then using “only when necessary – using the right tool at the right time, in the right place and in the right way.”

There’s a similar issue with “round-up ready” crops, the GMO soybeans, corn, and canola varieties so widely grown in North America. They resist glyphosphate, a relatively safe herbicide.  It’s become very convenient for farmers to use these GMO crops and control weeds with one or two passes of Round-up. But nature has responded (as it always does) and created super weeds that themselves resist glyphosphate.  Again this isn’t using herbicides “when necessary, and in the right place”, but blanketing millions of acres with one product, with the resulting “resistance” that’s the inevitable result.  The pesticide companies then get the additional benefit of developing new herbicides to control the superweeds, with the patents and profits that go along with that.

No doubt the media will present the fight over neonicotinoids as all or nothing, a ban or hell in a hand basket. Maybe the more important question is how these products are used, that convenience for farmers, and profits for pesticide companies has trumped common sense and biology. Crop Life could take a leadership role in changing the nature of the debate, and all it has to do is follow it’s own advice.

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Maybe When We're Hungry We'll Pay Attention

I-Politics is an on-line publication that's a good read for anyone interested in politics and government policy. It also takes a real interest in agriculture. In fact it's headline on a Saturday in early July was about little known research about Canadian's attitudes towards farming. It's an important read.

Farm-to-fork divide is a yawning gulf, federal research shows

By | Jul 5, 2014 5:00 am |
From a crisis in western rail capacity to the major stumbling blocks in transcontinental trade agreements, Canadian agriculture has been at the heart of some of the past year’s most important policy debates.
Yet recently released government research reveals something farmers have long warned of: most Canadians have no idea where their food comes from, how its made or how important it is to their own economic fortunes.
“Findings from this series of focus groups clearly indicate a relatively low level of awareness, particularly among urban dwellers, of the current state of the [agriculture] sector and its contributions to provincial, regional and the national economy,” the report reads.
Similar findings were reported in rural centres, the report added. While rural residents noted a higher familiarity with agriculture in general, researchers found “they nonetheless felt they too were not as knowledgeable of the larger national picture and outlook.”
The information was collected for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada last December via 18 focus groups held in eight communities across Canada: Toronto, Halifax, Montreal, Calgary, Vancouver, New Liskeard, Ont., Montmagny, Que. and Selkirk, MB.
Each meeting lasted just over two hours and was made up of eight to 11 participants with men and women over 18 years old.
Few of those polled identified the agriculture sector as a “key economic driver.” That, despite the fact Canada’s agriculture sector contributes $100 billion to the national economy annually and is tied to one in eight jobs in this country, a statistic which “surprised” many focus group members, the report said.
In fact, most participants, the report reads, “felt Canada’s agricultural sector could be considered ‘relatively low-tech’ or not as innovative” as the energy sector, the auto sector or the service sector.
Participants, the report argues, are stuck in the past with “romanticized” or “idealistic” view of agriculture. An image researchers said, more in tune with what farming used to look like “in the last century” than with today’s modern farm.
Only a handful of those surveyed had visited a working farm.
The result is a major disconnect from an industry expected to dominate the future Canadian trade agenda.
Canada is currently the fifth largest exporter of agricultural goods, a fact unfamiliar to most participants. While most could name wheat as a major export, few were able to list other Canadian exports.
In fact, pollsters were routinely told Canada was a net importer of food thanks to the wide variety of imported fruits and vegetables found in Canadian grocery stores.
“I feel like agriculture is silent in Canada,” one participant noted. Despite widespread government advertizing campaigns attempting to reconnect Canadians with the farm, for everyday folks food, they said, comes from the grocery stores.
The unfamiliarity with the farming world also means few participants were aware of major policy debates including ones on supply management or the pending Canada-European Trade Agreement.
While most participants had heard of marketing boards, researchers found few were familiar with the workings of supply management with many participants posing questions about how quotas were set.
Debate on the issue reportedly generated “mixed responses” with participants noting the system likely benefited producers by “offering greater income security.” However, many raised concerns about the impact supply management had on consumer choices, restricted competition and higher prices.
As for the European trade deal, pollsters found most participants hadn’t heard of it.
While some had heard rumblings of a “perceived negative impact on fine cheese producers in Quebec,” along with possible gains for beef, the report found “they had no specific knowledge of the terms of the agreement or how it might benefit the Canadian agriculture industry.”

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Kill the Documentary Unit at CBC... Really???


40 journalists protest reported plans to close down documentary team at CBC | CMG

Below is the letter signed by 40 journalists protesting reported plans to close down the in-house documentary team at the CBC. There’s a broad concern that this is just the tip of the iceberg, and signals a broader intent to privatize more and more portions of the CBC, and weaken it.
The presence of original documentary programming, independent and in-house is at its lowest point in over 20 years on the CBC. The issue should be increasing in-depth journalism, not cutting it even further.
The initial letter is followed by a response by Heather Conway, Executive Vice-President, English Services. The journalists’ subsequent response is also posted 
Hubert Lacroix (President and CEO)
Heather Conway (Executive Vice-President, English Services)
Dear Hubert and Heather,
The undersigned journalists have become alarmed at the precipitous decline of documentaries in the CBC-TV schedule, which has occurred not just for financial reasons, but because of programming priorities over many years.
Now there are plans to shut down in-house production of feature documentaries, including the Unit which has produced “The People’s History of Canada”, “The Canadian Experience”, “Eighth Fire” as well as topical quick-response documentaries such as the award-winning “Syria: Behind Rebel Lines”.
CBC Television, to be true to its core mandate, needs more long-form journalism and legacy programming –not less.
We have observed the steady erosion of long-form documentary production within the CBC in the past few years. Strands like Nature of Things and Doc Zone and fifth estate  have continued, but any documentary mini-series or Sunday night specials outside those strands have virtually disappeared from the CBC TV Network. In fact, the overall production of documentaries –independent or in-house– has fallen dramatically over recent years.
We stress that we continue to believe it is important to support and nurture and expand independent documentary production, which has always been an important component of series such “Life and Times”, “Witness” and “Doc Zone”.    But some productions, such as Eighth Fire, which combined efforts of TV, radio, French and English and aboriginal CBC staff, can only be done internally. On the immediate news fronts, it often takes CBC News and documentary teams to produce quick-turnaround long-form documentaries to provide context and depth to immediate events.
The remedy, we suggest, is not to compound the documentary deficiency of the CBC by eliminating the in-house unit, but strengthen our commitment by embedding that unit as part of the CBC News and Current Affairs department. There is already a considerable sharing of staff and resources between them, on which we can build; the documentary unit would use existing News infrastructure and facilities. This would preserve our legacy production, and give wider opportunities to our journalists, as well as develop our younger staff. Harmonizing our structure with SRC, where documentaries come under the news umbrella, would increase our ability to co-ordinate major bi-cultural projects.
Shutting down the in-house documentary unit would be a negative message to send to core supporters of the CBC, as well as a dispiriting message to our journalists that the management does not value their long-form journalism, and there will be no room for it in the future.
Aligning the strengths of in-house documentaries and CBC News, on the other hand, achieves efficiencies and strengthens the brand of CBC journalism, of which we’re all proud.
Nahlah Ayed (Foreign Correspondent: London)
Lynn Burgess (Producer: “Marketplace”)
Tony Burman (Former Editor-in-Chief: CBC News and Current Affairs)
Patrick Brown (Former Correspondent: China)
Harvey Cashore (Senior Producer: CBC News)
David Common (Host: “World Report”)
Michael Claydon (Executive Producer: “DocZone”)
Sue Dando (Executive Producer: “The Nature of Things”)
Neil Docherty (Senior Producer: “the fifth estate”)
Margaret Evans (European Correspondent: London)
Gillian Findlay (Host: “the fifth estate”)
Matt Galloway (Host: “Metro Morning”)
Erica Johnson (Host: “Marketplace”)
Michelle Gagnon (Producer: “The National”)
Sylvene Gilchrist (Producer: “The National”)
Chris Hall (National Affairs Editor: Ottawa)
David Halton (Former Senior National Affairs Correspondent: Ottawa)
Tom Harrington (Host: “Marketplace”)
Mark Kelley (Host: ‘the fifth estate”)
Neil MacDonald (Senior Correspondent: Washington)
Linden MacIntyre (Host: “the fifth estate”)
Peter Mansbridge (Chief Correspondent/Anchor “The National”)
Duncan McCue (Correspondent: “The National”)
Terence McKenna (Correspondent: “The National”)
Bob Mckeown (Host: “the fifth estate)
Carmen Merrifield (Producer: “The National”)
Wendy Mesley (Host: “The National”)
Terry Milewski (Senior Correspondent: Ottawa)
Don Murray (Former Correspondent: London)
Carol Off (Host: “As It Happens”)
Catherine Olsen (Executive Producer/Documentaries: CBC News Network)
Sasa Petricic (Middle East Correspondent: Jerusalem)
Julian Sher (Senior Producer: “the fifth estate”)
Alex Shprintsen (Producer: “The National”)
Don Spandier (Senior Producer: “The World at Six”)
David Suzuki (Host: “The Nature of Things”)
Anna Maria Tremonti (Host: “The Current”)
Connie Walker (Lead Reporter: CBC Aboriginal)
Tamar Weinstein (Producer: “the fifth estate”)
Hello all,
First, thanks for taking the time to sign your names to the email; your views and thoughts are both welcomed and appreciated.
There is, as you point out, a long and storied history of documentary programming at the CBC, many of which were produced by some of you.  I am sure you are all equally proud that many more, who having been trained here, have gone on to make extraordinary docs themselves.
There does seem to be some confusion and an apparent perception we have an intention to reduce docs on the network(s).  This is especially problematic given that I have stated publicly, as has Sally Catto, most recently at our Upfronts and repeated at Banff last week that we are of the view that docs is a genre we not only favour but also recognize the resurgence they’re having creatively with audiences, especially younger audiences.
To be fair, we have clearly signalled our support for the form and we agree there are many journalists in News and Current Affairs who are capable and interested in making short and long form docs.  That said, there is also a thriving independent documentary community, many of whom were and are mentored by our own teams.
It is true we are reviewing every area of our business to determine whether or not there are opportunities to meet our desired programming needs differently and more cost effectively and, as you know, we are not the only people who can produce documentaries.  Our appetite for docs has not changed or diminished in this context but our willingness to consider options for producing them is open.  There is a real opportunity for docs to be created by some of the talent in News and Current Affairs as well as the option to acquire docs from talented Canadian documentary producers.
The fact that we have documentary capable talent in News and Current Affairs does not support the suggestion to move the current documentary area into that division.  First, documentaries such as “Wild Canada” are neither news nor current affairs but rather nature documentaries.  The Nature of Things is also not a news program.  Part of the power of many documentaries is their very strong and personal point of view approach – a posture difficult to maintain in an environment very much subject to journalistic standards and practices.  I believe the editorial and artistic freedom of the documentary area is better served outside of News and Current Affairs.
There are fresh and compelling approaches to documentaries and many documentary producers who would love an opportunity to see their work on the public broadcaster.  Some of you have talked about Vice as one example of a contemporary approach to the form.  I can tell you having met with them, as no doubt a number of you have, that they cite the CBC documentary tradition as inspiring their approach.
But the Vice team is only one of many Canadian producers of docs.  There are 114 Canadian independent documentary producers listed in the Canadian Media Production Association’s guide and, at their request, I met with the Documentary Organization of Canada as they feel there should be more opportunities for their members to produce for the CBC.  We have an obligation to listen to that constituency as they too produce high quality, compelling, relevant content.  Many young producers say docs are the new feature films for them and a journalistic form they find more engaging than headline news.
We also have a documentary channel that privileges acquiring and commissioning Canadian documentaries.
So, we are reviewing the absolute necessity of producing our own docs for both financial and creative reasons and are open to engaging with other points of view about how we best achieve those goals of providing great documentary content on CBC’s schedules.
I am genuinely sorry that the speed with which our financial challenges have to be dealt with has short- circuited a more comprehensive consultation with you as individuals.  Regrettably, time is not on our side.
I hope I’ve provided some further context for the thinking behind this review.  Please know that the genre and the individuals, especially Mark, have my utmost respect and that our deliberations in the current context do not single out the genre precipitously or on a cost only basis.
Thank you again for bringing your concerns to the fore.
Dear Heather,
Thank you again for your response to our original note. We have a few points we would like to make in return.
At the core of this issue is the alarming decline in documentary production at the CBC, and, beyond documentary, the network’s declining commitment to in-depth programming, whether produced by us or by independents.  The stark fact is that CBC Television has dramatically drifted from one of the core mandates of public broadcasting.
In the past ten years, the number of original documentaries on the network has been cut by 52 per cent, to the lowest documentary level in over 20 years.  The budget of the documentary department has been cut to a quarter of its size.  Network documentary series and original feature-length Canadian documentaries have largely disappeared from the landscape. The problem, it seems clear to us, is not just money but policy.
You raise the importance of being open to other voices and independent producers across the country. We agree.
Seventy five per cent of the output of the CBC Documentary Department is independent.  Only 25 per cent is in-house. That means The Nature of Things and Doc Zone are overwhelmingly produced by independent companies.  In the past four years alone, figures show these strands have commissioned documentaries from over 60 different companies, from every region in the country.
We are broadly comfortable with the principle that that which can be produced by independents, in most cases, should be. But we are not comfortable with the inverse idea that what can’t be produced by contracting out should not get done – which is essentially the result of the strategy we seem to be embarking on.  And that comes to the core of this disagreement:
The public broadcaster should undertake enterprises that are legacy projects of national scale and importance, like 8th Fire, projects of record, projects that are investigative, projects that are controversial and require the protection and infrastructure support of a major institution. The CBC affords legal, moral and institutional protection that is not always available to an isolated independent company.  The public broadcaster should also undertake projects that bring depth and eyewitness to the breaking news stories of the day.
We have a wealth of talent and experience in our News and Current Affairs department that has virtually no access to producing in-depth documentary journalism. Stories of global crises like Iraq and Ukraine are precisely when we need insight, eyewitness and depth. Breaking and quick-response documentaries are largely un-financeable through independent production.  It takes months to finance an independent production through a maze of CMF funding, Rogers or Bell funds, provincial tax credits, etc.
These documentaries –quick response, legacy, risky or controversial—will become scarcer and scarcer unless the CBC determines they WILL be done and has purpose-built units to assure that.
Then there is the issue of associating Documentaries with News and Current Affairs, which our initial letter endorses.
First there is the immediate practical issue that the network seems intent on getting out of all in-house production and plant infrastructure except for News, and so in-house Documentaries would be swept out for the sake of symmetry and lack of plant support and facilities.  In-house documentaries can easily use CBC News facilities. Second, it is important to give creative space to the talent and resources contained within the News service, which adds up to an efficient use of resources.
There is no contradiction implicit in associating Documentaries with the News and Current Affairs family.
You base your argument on what we feel is a rather narrow definition of News and Current Affairs.  You say documentaries such as “Wild Canada” are neither news nor current affairs but rather nature documentaries, and that The Nature of Things is not a news program, and therefore should not reside under a News and Current Affairs Department umbrella.  In fact, science programming (Découverte) resides within News and Current Affairs in Radio-Canada, and has for over 25 years, without creating any apparent confusion or restriction.  It’s also important to understand that The Nature of Things is far more than nature programming; it is science, technology, environment, ecology, medicine, and the whole spectrum of the human condition from psychology to brain science, genetics to social sciences, all of which also falls under current affairs.
You say that part of the power of many documentaries lies in their strong personal point of view approach, and we agree. But you add that this is “a posture difficult to maintain in an environment very much subject to journalistic standards and practice.”  We should point out that it is a long-standing corporate policy, passed by the Board, that all information programming on the CBC, including all independent documentaries, must be governed by the Journalistic Standards and Practices.  We do not have two standards for ethical conduct –such as chequebook journalism, hidden cameras, entrapment, or misrepresentation– on the same network, nor should we.
Neither has the fact that we are all governed by the same ethical standards proved to be an impediment to editorial and artistic freedom of the documentary form.  In fact the Journalistic Standards and Practices policy explicitly recognizes the POV genre and that documentaries often need to be provocative, and we air them where “There is a compelling argument, well-presented, for a single point of view that provides insight into a controversial subject and may provoke public debate.”
The CBC has a very strong tradition of documentary programing generated by its own staff. We don’t want to lose it.