Wednesday, 30 May 2012

The Two Faces of Farming

It's an interesting term: hobby farm. To many it means someone IS farming but it's more for fun than profit, its success isn't all that important, people can walk away from it whenever they want.   I think it's a little more complicated than that. There is an issue of scale, essentially how much one or two people can do while presumably working somewhere else.  There is the question of  affordability, the old joke about winning the lottery and farming until the money runs out. There's probably more truth to that than people realize.   There can be real rewards both physical and psychological from planning, working land,  planting a crop, successfully fighting off bugs and disease, and harvesting something of value. So much of what we do and consume is ready-made, a simple cash transaction. Farming, hobby or something bigger, demands real effort and risk. The weather can sweep away months of work in a heartbeat Disease can kill a promising clutch of chicks, or a group of wiener pigs.

Everyone is pouring over the latest data from Statistics Canada (Will we ever have such accurate data again? Canada's premier statisticians say no, the voluntary nature of future census gathering prevents that). One bright spot in agriculture in this region is the boom in hobby farms in Nova Scotia (a story below).  Let's think a bit about what this means.

I have enormous respect for people who buy small plots of land with the idea of growing and marketing food. Call them modern "back to the landers", new age farmers, whatever.  They voluntarily take on long hours of hard work, with little knowledge of  who will be their customers, or what they'll be willing to pay. CSA's or Community Supported Agriculture is a a huge improvement, defining a customer base, and sharing some of the financial risk in the spring.  They grow good food,  treat the land well, what could be more important?

At its heart I think are values and lifestyle, not business and profit.  That's its greatest strength, but also it's biggest weakness. I farmed like this myself for several years in the 1970's. I never worked so hard, or made so little money. Talking about farming on CBC was much easier, and much more profitable. As consumers we should do everything we can to support these small farming operations, even paying a little more than they're asking (farmers are notorious for not charging enough).

Here's the but, and where I get in trouble with many people I respect. I don't think this kind of farming can underpin a provincial economy, can create the financial returns needed to support healthcare and education. Many small/hobby farmers (and I know this from personal experience) are one truck breakdown from insolvency. Anyone who heard Paul Offer's honest portrayal of the life of a long-standing organic vegetable producer on PEI knows at the heart of it was risk, hard work, and  no financial return. Only off-farm income kept the enterprise afloat. He and his wife do it because they love doing it.  Clearly more than a hobby, but not the foundation of a functioning provincial economy,  one that's facing cuts in virtually every area of federal transfers, from equalization to ACOA, to employment insurance.

So two different stories on farming, one on the expansion of hobby farms in Nova Scotia, and one on the hardship being faced by a large progressive Nova Scotia Beef producer who's facing bankruptcy.

Nova Scotia’s hobby farms are thriving

    by Gabriela Perdomo on Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Farming continues to experience a decline across Canada, but one province is bucking the trend. Driven by cash crops and an emerging wine industry, Nova Scotia is enjoying an agricultural boom, according to a recent Statistics Canada report. The Atlantic province posted a 2.9 per cent jump in the number of farms since 2006, for a total of 3,905. By contrast, the number of farms across Canada has decreased by 10.3 per cent. And Nova Scotia is not only home to more farms: overall agricultural profits have also increased over the past five years, by nine per cent, to $595 million.

What’s driving the boom? There’s been an increase in the number of smaller farms (those that earn under $10,000). “That’s people who want to try the farming lifestyle, wanting to start small,” says Henry Vissers, executive director of the Nova Scotia Federation of Agriculture. Vissers says the appeal of a farming lifestyle, coupled with a growing interest in farmers’ markets and consumers wanting to buy local, is pushing this boom.

Another big driver is the wine industry. Land dedicated to grape growing has increased by 41 per cent from 2006. Nova Scotia could soon be recognized as Canada’s third wine region after Ontario and British Columbia—the province’s coasts are now dotted with 16 large wineries and at least 60 independent grape growers. Carl Sparkes, president of Jost Vineyards, says the industry is growing at a furious pace. “I even think the census numbers are low. This year we’ve seen a lot of activity,” he says.

Along with the rise of hobby and specialty farms, another dramatic change is the decline of livestock farming. Hog farming is down by 80 per cent, the largest drop in Canada, driven by a combination of high prices for grain feed, stiff competition from Quebec and Manitoba, and the closing of two Maple Leaf processing plants in 2010. Beef production is also down by almost a third.

Meanwhile, the acreage dedicated to corn crops in the province has increased by 77 per cent in five years, and soy acreage has tripled. The price of cash crops has seen an upsurge in recent years, and Nova Scotia farmers have taken notice.

Family farm on the brink

LINDEN — Linden Leas Ltd., one of the province’s largest cattle farms, is on the brink of foreclosure.

“We’re on our knees now,” Edna Foster said as she scrubbed and re-scrubbed the same spotless dishes.

“We’ve got no cards left and they have them all.”

The “they” she is referring to is the Nova Scotia Farm Loan Board, which called in $2.5 million in loans earlier this spring.

The Bank of Montreal, meanwhile, is calling in a further $350,000.

At the kitchen table behind her, her husband, Frank, and her children were plotting with a consultant, developing, they hoped, a last ditch offer to stave off bankruptcy.

The Fosters have thrown a cog in the foreclosure wheel by filing for farm debt mediation. On Wednesday, they were preparing their latest offer to the Farm Loan Board.

The Fosters have become a rallying cry for organizations representing Cumberland County farmers, with strongly worded motions of support passed by the Zone 3 Cattle Producers Association and the area board of directors for the Nova Scotia Federation of Agriculture.

“Now, after years of hardship, misery and barely hanging on, many beef farmers are facing the reality that the provincial government, rather than seeing the current rebound in beef prices as an opportunity to rebuild a shattered industry, is instead taking the short-term approach of liquidation to recover previous financial investment,” said Leon Smith, Zone 3 president.

So how did it happen?

How did a farm that pioneered grass-fed, locally sold beef, with $40 million in farm gate sales since 1989, end up crippled by debt?

In short, bovine spongiform encephalopathy, also known as mad cow disease and BSE, happened.

The Fosters’ story started with a strange idea: Nova Scotia’s cattle farmers have an advantage over the industrial scale farms of Western Canada and the United States. That instead of feeding cattle almost entirely on expensive imported grain, farmers could use the grass from their pastures to fatten their animals.

“We have a grass advantage here,” said Frank Foster. “For centuries people had farmed this way here and it’s the way they still do it in England.”

So in 1989, the Fosters converted Linden Leas Ltd. Farm from a dairy to a beef farm.

When the cost of importing grain from Western Canada skyrocketed in 1996, they completed the transition to a pasture-feed operation, roughly matching their growing herd to the seasonal growth of their 405 hectares of fenced pasture.

“We’re not purists, but an animal is what it eats,” said Foster. “A pasture to cattle is like a dinner plate to us. The timothys, clovers and varied grasses of the pasture form a salad that is healthy for the animal and makes for healthier beef for us.”

While the conversion was expensive, debt and farming are uneasy companions that walk hand in hand.

By 2001, the Fosters had bought out two neighbouring farms, had 1,484 head of cattle, owed $1.1 million to the farm loan board and $400,000 to the Bank of Montreal.

The price for cattle was $1.60 per pound, the farm had gross receipts for its cattle of more than $1.2 million annually.

“We were in it for the long haul, for our children and grandchildren,” Foster said. “We were on a course to pay down the cost of setting up the farm.”

Then, in 2003, an Alberta farmer found a cow that couldn’t stand up.

It had BSE, a neurodegenerative disease capable of spreading to humans.

The American border closed to Canadian cattle, the market flooded and, almost immediately, the price for beef dropped by more than 50 per cent. The Linden Leas herd lost $1 million in value overnight.

The entire cattle industry was in chaos. Some went bankrupt, others held on.

Compensation programs to protect the industry and keep cattle from heading to the slaughterhouses were introduced by the federal and provincial governments. The evolving series of subsidies, funded between the federal and provincial governments, had mixed results in Nova Scotia.

The complex rules helped some and left others, like Linden Leas, out in the cold.

“We have received about one-third of the compensation for loss based upon agricultural activity and output per unit as other farms,” said Foster.

“If we had been treated equitably, we would not be in this situation.”

The Fosters responded with the Beef Mobile.

Trailer in tow, they made weekly stops in Amherst, Truro, Pictou and New Glasgow, selling their beef direct to the consumer, getting retail prices and selling out.

Their veterinarian daughter, Jillian, son, Rob, and a growing army of grandchildren, bent their backs to keep the wolf from the door. But without access to capital to buy new cattle and bills piling high, the Fosters weren’t able to make payments on their loans.

By Wednesday, interest upon interest upon interest had piled onto the original $1.1 million loan to make it about $2.5 million.

With beef prices rebounding to pre-BSE levels this spring, the Fosters made a desperate offer.

They offered to turn ownership of the farm over to the Farm Loan Board if they were allowed to get access to about $500,000 to purchase more cattle and continue farming on the land under a lease.

In return, they got a letter calling in the loans.

“We have created a market for ourselves and we have the land, the skills and the past track record,” Foster said. “All we need is capital to put hooves on the ground and we can pay the money back.

“I know I can be my own worst enemy and I’ve made my share of mistakes. If it takes me getting out of the way so the department can deal with my son, Rob, I’ll get out of the way.”

In an email, Agriculture Minister John MacDonell said he could not speak about specific cases involving the Farm Loan Board due to privacy concerns, but did say there is no legislative authority to prevent foreclosures.

Meanwhile, the Zone 3 Cattle Producers Association and the Cumberland County Federation of Agriculture are demanding a review of how BSE compensation programs were administered and an 18-month moratorium on beef farm foreclosures.

Agriculture Department spokeswoman Adele Poirier said staff who administered the BSE programs are no longer with the department and it would be difficult for her to speak on specifics.

“The cattle industry is challenging and BSE certainly added to the challenges,” said Poirier. “Lately, however, the industry has been rebounding. Nova Scotia is working at creating a niche market for grass-fed beef.”

The irony was not lost on Rob Foster as he looked over the farm’s much reduced herd of 645 animals.

“My five children were sorting our grass-fed beef to be sold locally before the new strategy came out,” he said.

“They’ll want to keep farming this land after I’m gone.”

Monday, 28 May 2012

EI Fantasies and Realities

I do make fun of them on occasion, but I respect the work of some of  our national media columnists, and John Ibbitson is one. I often disagree with him, but he argues and tries to persuade in a challenging way.   Today he does some hand holding of Atlantic Canadians, trying to convince us that the tough love coming from the Harper Government will make us better off in the long run, including the announced changes to the EI system. I'll include his full commentary at the end, and add another interesting take by a Windsor Star columnist who at least asks some good questions. Let's look at what Ibbitson is saying.

"But the plain fact is that with the population aging and economic growth expected to remain sluggish for years to come, Canada just can’t afford rural subsidies. Rural industries must be able and willing to pay their own way."

This often gets tossed out when talking about EI and equalization, that there's an unfair redistribution of wealth from richer to poorer provinces.  First of all there's no added tax on Albertans for example (who pay no provincial sales tax don't forget) to make Equalization payments. Federal income, excise, and employment taxes are collected from workers in the same way there they are in every other province. Yes with a booming resource economy, Albertans are making more money so the Federal take is relatively bigger. What Equalization (which is part of the Constitution, using very broad language) requires is the Federal government to share some of its revenues with have-not provinces. If the money didn't go there, it would presumably go somewhere else. The more important point is what the hell do wealthier Canadians think happens to  EI  payments? They don't end up in some secret Swiss  bank account, or New York hedge fund, they get spent on groceries, fuel, mortgage payments, etc. the very products produced by those wealthier Canadians, adding to their bottom line.  That's how economies work. (Henry Ford understood that).

Here's something that's just as important. Ibbitson says:

"Rural industries that lack the capital and incentive to provide year-round employment drain more in government support than they generate in revenue. They keep workers where they shouldn’t be, instead of encouraging them to move to where the good jobs are."

It's not "capital and incentive" that prevents the creation of year-round work, it's ice and snow, the fact that tourists don't want to huddle in a bay-side cottage in February. It's hard to believe when you work in a comfortable office that the weather can affect the work you do, but it does.

And here's something for me that's badly understood. There are places like Maine that allow year-round lobster fishing for example, and the affect on the stock has been devastating, requiring new rules and regulations to allow it to recover.  Canada's fishery is heavily regulated (not that well in many cases), to ensure the sustainability of the catch, not to ensure that fishermen can put their feet up next to the fire and collect EI. There are seasons and quotas, and that by definition means fishermen don't work year-around.

Ibbitson's solution:

"But market forces would ensure that Torontonians received their lobster in a way that, properly regulated, would be better both for the fishery and for the Maritime economy."

It was market forces that led to the decimation of groundfish stocks, that have brought tuna to the point of extinction from overfishing in the Eastern Atlantic, and I could go on.  

Canadians enjoy (relative to incomes) the cheapest food in the world but pay the world price for almost everything else. Allowing  farmers to have experienced seasonal workers (who can collect EI in the off-season), and fishermen to protect fish stocks, is part of what allows that to happen.

John Ibbitson
Why Atlantic Canada need not fear decline

    May 28, 2012

When Statistics Canada reveals the latest data on the country’s aging population, Atlantic Canadians might be tempted to hang their heads in defeat. They shouldn’t.

There is a positive future for the easternmost provinces, a future that could prove the naysayers wrong. A generation from now, people could be going up the road instead of down it.

Tuesday’s census could be the last one to show Atlantic Canada in decline, if Atlantic Canadians choose to make it so.

Along with almost every other developed nation, Canadian society is aging, with the first of the baby boomers heading into retirement, leaving an ever-shrinking cohort of workers to support the state through taxes.

The good news for most parts of Canada is that our robust immigration levels and welcoming attitude toward both temporary and permanent foreign workers will mitigate the effects of a greying society. But little of this is any comfort to Atlantic Canadians.

The chronically weak economy not only encourages the young to migrate west, it deters immigrants. A region lacking young people or immigrants lacks creativity, entrepreneurship, dynamism. And the Maritime provinces, notwithstanding business powerhouses like McCains and Sobeys, remain too rural, too small and too dependent.

The Harper government is determined to equip the Canadian economy to handle its aging population, which is why it is raising the retirement age for social security and why it announced new restrictions on employment insurance last week, aimed at forcing seasonal workers in fishing, forestry, agriculture and tourism to take other work during the offseason or lose their benefits.

Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter observed that seasonal work is integral to the region’s rural culture.

“If they see that as a problem, then they essentially see the culture of rural Canada as a problem,” he said.

But the plain fact is that with the population aging and economic growth expected to remain sluggish for years to come, Canada just can’t afford rural subsidies. Rural industries must be able and willing to pay their own way.

That doesn’t mean Atlantic Canada needs to despair. In fact, there may never have been such reason for optimism.

Newfoundland and Labrador is booming as never before. It’s not just oil. It’s hydroelectricity and nickel and other natural resources. It’s the high-tech firms spinning off from these booming natural-resource industries. No wonder St. John’s has a lower unemployment rate than Toronto.

The shipbuilding contracts from the federal government will generate billions in revenue for Halifax Shipyards, and billions more in spinoff industries, creating thousands of skilled jobs. The region’s top-notch universities will ensure there are workers to fill those jobs.

Provincial governments have started to get serious about encouraging immigration. This is crucial to reversing population decline and to generating economic growth.

And though you’ll never find a politician who wants to get re-elected who’ll admit it, the employment-insurance reforms are good for the region.

Rural industries that lack the capital and incentive to provide year-round employment drain more in government support than they generate in revenue. They keep workers where they shouldn’t be, instead of encouraging them to move to where the good jobs are.

In a recent forum, Yvon Godin, a New Brunswick NDP MP, angrily asked how urbanites expect to eat fish if there aren’t seasonal workers to catch and process those fish.

But market forces would ensure that Torontonians received their lobster in a way that, properly regulated, would be better both for the fishery and for the Maritime economy.

Atlantic Canadians have a golden opportunity to exploit the region’s natural and human resources. They need only ignore the old, closed, fearful voices that promote dependency and cause decline. There’s a future for region; all it has to do is seize it.

Because the numbers that will be revealed in the census will leave them little choice.

That doesn’t mean Atlantic Canada needs to despair. In fact, there may never have been such reason for optimism.

Newfoundland and Labrador is booming as never before. It’s not just oil. It’s hydroelectricity and nickel and other natural resources. It’s the high-tech firms spinning off from these booming natural-resource industries. No wonder St. John’s has a lower unemployment rate than Toronto.

The shipbuilding contracts from the federal government will generate billions in revenue for Halifax Shipyards, and billions more in spinoff industries, creating thousands of skilled jobs. The region’s top-notch universities will ensure there are workers to fill those jobs.

Provincial governments have started to get serious about encouraging immigration. This is crucial to reversing population decline and to generating economic growth.

And though you’ll never find a politician who wants to get re-elected who’ll admit it, the employment-insurance reforms are good for the region.

Why not work these jobs?

    by Anne Jarvis, The Windsor Star May 28, 2012 4:03 AM
    May 27, 2012

Almost 17,000 people in Windsor and the surrounding area don't have a job. That's 10.1 per cent of the workforce, the highest unemployment rate in Canada.

When it comes to doling out the dole, Windsor is one of the most generous regions in the country, offering up to 45 weeks of employment insurance benefits.

Yet we import about 3,600 foreigners to labour largely in our flourishing greenhouse industry, where the Help Wanted sign is always out and companies can't hire enough.

If we took these jobs, our unemployment rate would plummet to 7.9 per cent.

We've been chasing BYD for more than a year and now we're buying their buses, all to try to land its assembly plant. Yet we have thousands of jobs in our own backyard.

Call me Marie Antoinette (as one columnist referred to federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty), but why shouldn't we do these jobs?

It's a question so thorny, so fraught with political landmines that most politicians wouldn't touch it with a 10-foot pole: Why can't healthy, unemployed Canadians do certain jobs?

Don't expect me to agree with Conservatives too often, but the changes to employment insurance announced by Human Resources Minister Diane Finley last week make sense.

"The dichotomy we face is that in many regions where we're experiencing higher unemployment rates, we're also dealing with labour and skills shortages," Finley told the media.

There's high unemployment in P .E.I., but the province brings in Russians to work in its fish plants. Unemployment is 10 per cent in Nova Scotia, but Christmas tree growers have to bring in Mexicans. Romanians work at a chocolate factory in New Brunswick.

Farmers in B.C. can't even find students to work in their orchards.

And with the highest unemployment rate in the country here, greenhouse vegetable growers in Essex County bring in workers from Mexico and the Caribbean.

According to the government, in Ontario, 2,200 general farm workers submitted claims for EI while farmers were given permission to hire 1,500 foreigners.

You have to admit, this doesn't make sense.

And it isn't fair that some people work only part of the year and get EI the rest of the year - every year, as if getting EI is a part-time job.

The principle is you get EI when you can't get a job.

Under the new guidelines, people who don't collect EI often but suddenly find themselves unemployed can hold out for jobs "within their usual occupation" at 90 per cent of their former wages.

But those who collect it frequently or for a long time will have to settle for a "similar" job or even "any work they are qualified to perform" for 70 to 80 per cent of their old pay. Personal circumstances and the working conditions of potential jobs will be considered. You might have to commute an hour, maybe more in places like Toronto, where everyone commutes an hour.

That's hardly draconian. In fact, it's reasonable.

Out in the high-tech, thriving greenhouses of Essex, Kent and Lambton counties, where produce is big business - more than a half billion dollars a year, a major chunk of the economy here - there are jobs planting, tending and harvesting crops. The pay isn't great, and the work is demanding. But there are also skilled jobs and training and the chance to move up, says George Gilvesy, general manager of the Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers.

"We're short of people for middle management, technical people to run computers," Gilvesy said. "There are a lot of skilled opportunities. There are great opportunities here. These aren't just jobs by default, if you can't get work elsewhere you get this. We need a good workforce on a year-round basis. We depend on a good workforce. There's capacity with the growth we have that if Canadians are going looking for work, they're going to find it."

The one thing that bugs me about this reform is that it's all aimed at workers. Flaherty infamously stated that "there is no bad job." Of course there is, plenty of them. And the government just created more; it announced that employers can pay temporary foreign workers 15 per cent less than the prevailing wage for Canadians. And why can't agricultural workers unionize to protect themselves in a field notorious for low pay and poor working conditions? There shouldn't be different classes of workers. Exchanging labour for money should be a fair trade, and there should be dignity in every job. If employers can't find enough employees, just like in any market, maybe they should also look at what they're offering.

Saturday, 26 May 2012

EI Changes: Conservative Morality Play

I've been fortunate enough never to have joined Team Canada (receive EI benefits), but I had no problem making EI contributions while I was working.  I could see it coming back all over the rural community I live in. People who work in PEI's many seasonal industries get money that's spent and re-spent locally, and provincially ( the old multiplier affect at play). Are there people who "work" the system? Of course. Do wealthy people hire high-priced tax lawyers to shelter their income and pay less tax? Yup.  Does EI steal a bit of people's ambition, maybe their soul? Yes again. The alternative is much worse.

Besides people who live very modest lives, the Harper Government is insulting the work they do. If Toronto fat cats are to enjoy oysters at their favourite bar in Toronto, someone has to go out and work rakes to harvest them out of the mud, something that can't be done for several months in the winter..  If these fat cats had to pay enough so that the oyster harvesters could feed their families for a year, they'd have to pay a lot more.  The pattern is repeated in fish plants, potato packing operations, and tourist operations. This is work that the Toronto fat cats wouldn't consider doing, but it's work that has value just the same.

There have been some thoughtful news reports on this that expose the shear lack of understanding of how many seasonal industries work in rural areas. Farmer Charles Keddy has a lot of stooped labour on his  fruit and vegetable farm in Lakeville, Nova Scotia. He has five full-time workers, hires 20 seasonal workers, and as many as 60 foreign workers during the peak harvest. Here's the dilemma. If the experienced seasonal workers who now can collect EI are forced to take another job in the off-season they'll either have to quit that second job (leaving another employer unhappy) in order to return to the Keddy farm, or Keddy will have to constantly retrain new workers, or he'll have to bring in more foreign workers. “They will not be available for work when we need them, which will make more of a void and require us to hire more foreign workers,” he said. This pattern of constantly losing experienced workers will be repeated in many of the region's seasonal industries.

The other word that comes up in this morality tale  is entitlement. I come from a privileged and very LUCKY generation, born just after the second world war,  enjoyed relatively cheap higher education, had lots of jobs to chose from when I graduated in 1971. When I look at the age and class of the people who make up the Harper cabinet, or comment on the EI changes in the National Post, or Globe and Mail, I know that we're the ones who've got it all wrong, who are trying to justify the opportunities and rewards we've enjoyed over the years by implying that it's only because of intelligence and hard work.  Yes there's some of that, but there's a whole lot of chance involved too (like being in Alberta on top of oil and gas deposits). To feel that we're entitled to what we have and that others who don't have it is because they're lazy  is bullshit.

Of course the EI system needs reform. I don't think high-school age kids should get a claim if they work on a fishing boat. I've seen too many living at home, using the EI claim to buy a car, and wonder what happened with their lives at thirty-five. The different periods to qualify and claim should be based on jobs available that aren't being filled, not the unemployment rate. People should be encouraged not punished if they want to go back to school while being unemployed. Maybe we should think about a "guaranteed annual income" and do away with the byzantine rules and regulations in place now.  (there's excellent research on the Dauphin,  Manitoba experiment with a guaranteed annual income in the 1970's).

So here's what we're looking at: employers who need seasonal workers say they'll be worse off. Seasonal workers will now be expected to have a computer to get the daily job info messages, and a car to commute within an hour of home to take whatever job there might be. That's going to make things a lot better isn't it.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Plant Breeding: Not Always a Bad Thing

Most stories we read in the media on plant breeding include cautionary words like GMO, Monsanto, plant patents, private control, you get the picture. Occasionally there are some different kinds of stories like today.

Through most of my lifetime public institutions like Agriculture Canada and universities did the time-consuming and expensive work of plant breeding. That began to change in the 1980's just as new powerful genetic breeding tools came into practice. Governments were fighting huge deficits (yea it's happened before), and were happy to shift costs over to the private sector. It came with a price: plant breeders rights. Developers of new varieties were now able to "own"  and charge farmers and others for using of what became a privately controlled, patented product, like a drug.  All of this has been lumped together into the whole controversy over GMO's or genetically modified organisms.

Three stories that came out today, two on interesting research by Agriculture Canada that could have real benefits for local farmers. The third gets us back to more familiar territory. It's a report on the latest round on GMO's in Europe. Consumers, and hence the food industry there have been very, very opposed to GMO's, but some wonder if that resistance is breaking down.  (Does that make Monsanto like the Borg in Star Trek.  You remember: Resistance is Futile)

A rose by any other name

An Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada plant research team led by Dr. Bourlaye Fofana has applied for plant breeder’s rights for a wild rose plant variety discovered and grown in the field on Prince Edward Island that could be the foundation of a new crop for local farmers.

The team applied for plant breeder’s rights (PBR) after extensive agronomic, genetic, chemistry, and bioactivity research through the Innovative Canadian Bioactives and Nutraceuticals (ICAN) project.

The project was launched to identify the make-up of 30 wild rose plants on PEI lines and several worldwide samples, and to measure the potential of rosehip plants in the development of drugs or nutraceuticals.

The research means the rose plant variety in question, named AAC Sylvia Arlene, can be grown by local farmers for ingredients that can be used in the development of drugs or nutraceuticals.

The rosehip has valuable vitamin C, levels and offers potential health and nutritional benefits.

Plant breeders' rights provide exclusive control over the seed, cuttings, tissue culture cut flowers, fruit, and foliage of any new variety. With these rights, the breeder can choose to become the exclusive marketer of the variety, or to license the variety to others.

Plant breeder’s rights protection, if granted for this rosehip variety, will give PEI growers a commercial advantage because of it traceability by origin, distinct profile, and genetic identity.

Granting an official PBR protection is expected from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency after a field evaluation this summer.

This will not the first wild rosehip selection to be named.  Similar cases have been approved and are grown in Europe.

'AAC Sylvia-Arlene' is named after Crops and Livestock Research Centre (CLRC) technician Sylvia Wyand who did some work during the early rosehip research .

The research started in 2005 when AAFC scientist Kevin Sanderson put together a strategy to develop rosehips as a commercial field crop.

AAC Sylvia-Arlene was selected based on the height and size of the plant, the survival rate,  yield performance, genetic distinctiveness, ability for mechanical harvesting, as well as distinct chemical composition and bioactivity.

More to lupins than meets the eye

Every June Prince Edward Island’s landscape comes alive with wild lupins. You find them everywhere: at the edges of potato fields, in ditches beside the highway and along the Island’s coastal waterways.

But what Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada chemist Dr. Jason McCallum sees in the blue, pink and purple flowers is a potential health benefit for humans, a source for biopesticides and even biodiesel oil.

McCallum started looking at wild lupins and other plants native to PEI in 2008 as an exploratory project.

In 2009, he sampled lupins for potential use as a natural food dye.

Further testing showed the flowers and seeds produced by lupins contain beneficial organic compounds called isoflavones.

Other research has shown that consumption of isoflavones may play a role in lowering risk for heart disease, improving bone health and reducing the risk of cancer by preventing free radical damage to DNA.

The beneficial compounds found in soy, alfalfa and red clover supplements are also found in lupins. But more research is needed, as some compounds found in lupin seeds may be harmful.

McCallum is evaluating the quality and level of these beneficial lupin compounds to see if it is feasible to extract them for supplements.

Another reason why scientists are interested is the lupin’s resistance to many insects and fungi.

McCallum is looking at the possibility of growing wild lupins as a biopesticide for use as a farm rotation crop to help control disease.

He is also studying the oil composition in lupin seeds with an eye to increase the oil content in the seed for use as a biodiesel.

McCallum says as wild lupins are well adapted to the environment and grow like crazy why not use them!

GM crops: protesters go back to the battlefields

    by Leo Hickman
    May 22, 2012

During the summer of 2003, more than 600 public meetings were held across the country on the order of the government. One was even held in the fictional town of Ambridge, setting for Radio 4's rural soap The Archers, such was the desire to spark a "national debate".

At each event, attendees were asked about their attitudes towards a technology that left very few people on the fence – genetically modified (GM) food. When Professor Malcolm Grant, the man chosen by the Labour government to lead the consultation, published the findings of the "GM Nation" report a few months later, the conclusions could not have been clearer: "The mood ranged from caution and doubt, through suspicion and scepticism, to hostility and rejection." Such views, added the report, "far outweighed any degree of support or enthusiasm for GM". In fact, only 2% of those surveyed said they would be happy to eat GM food. It was about an emphatic a "No!" from the British public as it could muster. The food industry, especially the supermarkets, heard it loud and clear and abandoned the technology.

But almost a decade on from the report – and after barely a word spoken about the technology in the British media in the intervening period – GM food is once again creating a growing ripple of headlines. A collective of anti-GM protestors calling themselves Take the Flour Back promised last month that they would rip up a test crop of genetically modified, aphid-resistant spring wheat currently being grown at the Rothamsted research station in Hertfordshire on 27 May unless the small band of publicly funded research scientists abandoned the trial. The scientists have so far refused to back down, instead posting an emotional appeal on YouTube calling for the protestors to meet them and "discuss the science". But tensions were raised further earlier this week when an organic farmer from Devon was charged for allegedly breaking in and vandalising crops and property at Rothamsted over the weekend, an act which a Take the Flour Back spokeswoman said the group "had no information about".

In stark contrast to the widespread anti-GM mood a decade ago – an age when GM was being described in the popular press as a "Frankenfood" and protesters dressed in bio-hazard suits routinely trampled on and pulled up test crops – it appears that the scientists have been far more successful this time at garnering sympathy and understanding of their work and motives. And there are signs from Europe, too, that attitudes are – albeit glacially – starting to shift: on Monday, Europe's food safety agency ruled against a temporary French ban on a strain of GM maize made by the US company Monsanto, saying there was "no specific scientific evidence, in terms of risk to human and animal health or the environment" to justify it. But the protesters feel the public is still on their side – a point supported by a British Science Association survey published in March which found that opposition to GM food in UK has only weakened by a few percentage points since 2003.

Liz Walker, a veteran of the 1990s anti-GM protests who is now an active member of Take the Flour Back, says any notion that GM "went away" is folly. While the UK and, to an equal extent, the European Union, has largely shunned the technology, the rest of the world, particularly North America and Asia, has pushed ahead with growing GM crops commercially.

"Around 2.7% of the global agricultural acreage is under GM crops now," she says. "There has been an almost unchallenged wave of pro-GM lobbying over the past few years in the UK and despite the GM Nation consultation finding clear opposition from the British public, there has been an absolute continuum of support for GM between the last government and the present one. Our supermarkets don't want it because they know their customers don't. They are not stupid. And there's just no market for it in Europe. But, despite all this, in recent years the UK government has approved GM wheat and potato trials."

Walker, who says she "works for a soap company" but doesn't wish to discuss her background in further detail, says the protesters are happy to talk with the scientists but insists the planned direct action will only be called off if the trial is halted. Rothamsted has "no democratic mandate to proceed", she says. Furthermore, the various claims by GM advocates – it is safe to grow and eat and offers multiple advantages to farmers and the environment – simply don't stack up: "Supposed reassurances from America about the safety of GM crops have not been borne out. And there is a question mark about it being cheaper for consumers, too. Even the UN and World Bank said in a major joint report in 2008 that GM isn't a contender." (The 2,500-page "International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge Science and Technology for Development" – IAASTD – concluded that the "information [about GM] is anecdotal and contradictory, and uncertainty about possible benefits and damage is unavoidable".)

When it was revealed last year that a trial for blight-resistant GM potatoes was being conducted at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, 60 protesters with signs saying "Stop gambling with our chips" marched through the city, before dumping a tractor-load of potatoes at the entrance. But media interest was negligible. Walker admits that there has been a conscious decision by the protesters this time round to raise the stakes.

"It took the announcement of this new protest to get everyone interested again in GM. The idea for the direct action emerged last year at a series of meetings held between those concerned by the announcement of the trial. Many were connected to the Community Food Growers Network." The network's online manifesto says it is "actively engaged in growing food plants and supporting others to grow food, in healthy, sustainable ways." It adds: "We exist to join together in defence of any member whose legitimate activities are threatened: an injury to one is an injury to all."

Walker also admits that the group contains "some of the same faces" that were part of the Climate Camp, a nationwide, non-hierarchical collective of environmentalists that has organised a series of high-profile protest camps in recent years, but which appears to be now focusing on "fracking", the controversial method of extracting natural gas from shale, as well as partially dissolving into groups such as Occupy and UK Uncut.

Beyond this, Walker refuses to say who the protesters are or how many they number: "We don't have a leadership structure. There's no fixed office and we take it in turns to man the phone." She says the protesters are "keeping an open mind" about how far they are prepared to take things on the day of the protest, but insists they have a mandate to express their objections. "The scientists and their supporters are in a massive minority. Concerns about the science of GM, and its corporate ownership, are both key, intertwined reasons for opposing it. The public mood on this is clear."

Mark Lynas, an anti-GM protester in the late 1990s who now admits to a Damascene conversion to the merits of the technology in recent years, believes the protesters have misjudged the public attitude to GM this time round. "I think there are several reasons why GM is making a comeback. First, the blanket opposition to GM per se as a technology is obviously untenable in any scientific sense – there is no reason why it should present any new dangers in food, and, indeed, may well be safer than conventional breeding in crops."

The experience of seeing GM crops grown and sold in other parts of the word goes a long way to prove this, he says: "With the passage of more than a decade since the widespread commercialisation of GM crops in North America, Brazil and elsewhere, hundreds of millions of people have eaten GM-originated food without a single substantiated case of any harm done whatsoever."

But the world's priorities and needs are also fast changing, says Lynas. Issues such as climate change and population rise mean we just don't have the luxury any more as a species to ignore or decry this technology: "It is increasingly obvious – even to environmentalists like myself who had initial strong doubts about the technology – that unnecessarily ruling out crop improvement technologies harms the interests of humanity when our challenge is to feed over nine billion much richer people by mid-century on a similar cultivated area to today and without enormous increases in fertiliser and pesticide use."

Lynas believes that the opposition to GM is now more driven by ideological rather than scientific objections: "I think most of the remaining opposition to GM is really a displaced fear about big corporations dominating the food chain, which is why every argument about GM seems to be reduced down to one word: Monsanto. In which case we should be encouraging publicly-funded, open-source GM such as that conducted at Rothamsted and the John Innes Centre, not threatening to rip out their crops."

It was, in part, the fear of international biotech firms such as Monsanto, Bayer and Syngenta attaining a stranglehold on global farming through their patented GM seeds that enraged so many back in the 1990s, when campaign groups such as GM Freeze were first formed to block the technology's advance. Pete Riley, a Friends of the Earth campaigner back then but now spokesperson for GM Freeze, the "only UK national umbrella organisation" to campaign against GM, says there is an increasingly pro-GM stance being adopted by the UK "establishment".

"The UN's IAASTD report back in 2008 concluded that GM offered marginal benefits," says Riley. "But since then we've seen the government's Foresight Global Food and Farming Futures report published last year, as well as the Royal Society, being positive about GM. This has helped to push it back on to the table here in the UK."

Riley says GM Freeze doesn't participate in direct action itself, but shares Take the Flour Back's concerns. "Spring wheat only accounts for 1% of wheat grown in the UK. There just isn't a market for it here. You have to wonder if this wheat trial at Rothamsted is just an attempt to justify their stream of public funding. Anyway, alternative technologies such as marker-assisted selection [non-GM genetic mapping] is now overtaking GM, but the immense lobbying power of the industry could still get it back on to the agenda."

It's the "same-old" thinking and assumptions being made about agriculture, observes Riley: "Ultimately, we need to have a wide debate about the direction of agriculture in the EU. We've been abusing our soil for 60 years. We need to move away from monoculture, energy-intensive farming. We don't need GM for a healthy diet. There's no evidence it increases yields. We need a diverse gene pool. The experience of using GM crops in the US has proved not to be good. There are now 21 herbicide-resistant weeds, meaning the industry is now proposing that more herbicides are introduced to tackle them. It's a pesticide treadmill in the US and a blind alley that we must not also go down."

This kind of talk exasperates Colin Ruscoe, chairman of the British Crop Production Council, a charity, supported by the biotech industry, which "promotes the use of good science and technology in the understanding and application of effective and sustainable crop production". The council has angrily condemned the planned anti-GM protest and believes it is an "attack on science". Ruscoe says it was a "deja vu moment" when he heard about the protest, which "took me back to when we had all those debates about 'Frankenfood'".

"We saw the same reaction when the plough was introduced," he sighs. "I am pessimistic about this debate. Europe is well fed. There is just no incentive to debate GM properly. It's simply not that high on the political agenda at the moment. Denmark, as president of the European Council, recently attempted to get it back on the table, but that failed. A compromise was also opposed. The opposition to GM in countries such as Germany is just too strong. Meanwhile, the rest of the world is racing ahead of us."

Ruscoe believes this is foolish as GM offers the promise of a number of beneficial traits: "Some crops could be climate change resistant. They could be both salt and drought resistant. Or they could be enhanced with extra health-giving properties such as omega-3 oils. Food security – being able to grow your own indigenous food supplies – has also become a bigger concern since the late 1990s. But it will take a few more shocks to the system to get the debate going again in Europe."

But Ruscoe offers a controversial half-way house as a suggested way forward for this seemingly interminable debate. "There has been a clever, yet misleading use of the word 'contamination' in this debate by the organic food lobby. I actually have a lot of respect for the principles of that form of farming. The best of both worlds would be a meshing together of the two systems, with each crop treated on a case-by-case basis, with one shared goal being reduced pesticide use. This would clearly threaten the organic brand and cause problems for labelling organic foods. But it would only cause a contamination of the brand. We have to be more pragmatic and sanguine about GM."

However, whether the protesters like it or not, GM crops are already heading towards Europe, insists Ruscoe. "Eventually, due to their use in neighbouring regions, we will get GM crops blowing into Europe over borders. There will be leaks in the dyke. We need to accept and prepare for this, not fear it."

Saturday, 19 May 2012

"Dutch Disease" Disease

There are few things more counter-intuitive than currency trading, particularly for Canadians.  We've spent most of our lifetime accepting that the American greenback, the "world's currency", would always be more valuable than our lowly loonie.  As consumers and travelers we just knew we'd pay that little bit extra, it was just a question of how much more. What most of us didn't understand is that Canadian exporters, especially after the "free trade" agreements were signed in the mid-eighties, made a killing selling into U.S, markets. You'd sell french fries or mussels at $1 U.S. a pound say, and get back $1.24 Canadian. It meant Canadian goods could be  very competitively priced, and led to some of the trade wars in potatoes, soft-wood lumber, and hogs. The Federal opposition parties of the day, particularity the Reform party, would complain loud and long that  the undervalued Canadian dollar was a sign of economic weakness.  Stephen Harper has now turned us into an "energy superpower", and the Canadian loonie is at par and often better than the U.S. dollar. Are we better off?

The media of course has played its role in informing and confusing people. The exchange rate is talked about like the score of an international hockey match. If the dollar is up it's a good thing, if it's down, it's a disappointment.  What's really going on of course is that currency traders, and speculators look at the loonie  in comparison to the U.S. greenback, and other currencies, and like what they see. It is a compliment of sorts,  but they're really paying more attention to is the deteriorating finances of the U.S. and Europe rather than recognizing the hard work and intelligence of Canadians. And lets be honest a lot of our wealth is the good fortune of geography, we have a lot of the stuff that the world wants right now. We're lucky. 

The high loonie  matters a lot to people in the Maritimes. All of our primary industries, including aerospace, rely on the U.S. market, and all have seen their bottom lines cut by 15 to 20% over the last few years as the loonie appreciated.  It's more expensive for U.S. tourists to come here, they don't enjoy that sense of great value that they used to.  On the other side of the ledger consumers living close to the border are much more willing to cross-border shop rather buy locally, more able to buy on-line from U.S. suppliers.

And now it's been turned into a political wedge issue. Thomas Mulcair dared to speak what essentially is the truth. Western resource industries are booming right now leading to an appreciation of the Canadian loonie, and that's hurting Canadian exporters. But apparently two things can't be true at the same time, the media has turned Mulcair's statement into a condemnation of Western success and asked Western premiers to respond. Naturally they're angry at what he said. O boy say the editorial writers, now we've got something we can  write about for two weeks rather than a couple of days.

It's called the "Dutch disease" because when North Sea oil was discovered in the '80's , the Dutch guilder quickly went up in value, and this hurt other Dutch exporters. It's just the way currency trading works. Central banks are really the only ones with power to affect currency values, and the biggest reason Canada's central bank has refused to increase interest rates is that it would give traders more reason to increase the value of the loonie. 

The high Canadian dollar is a given right now, and Maritime businesses will have to learn to cope, but there are two other things at play that are worrying. Equalization  (that Canadian program mentioned in the constitution that ensures the Federal government sends money to have-not provinces) used to include resource revenues, and this would be a way of balancing the wealth of Western provinces, with the impact that's having on industries here, but the federal government no longer includes resource revenues to determine these equalization payments, and a province like PEI is a big loser. The other worry is the rumbling about changes to E.I., especially how it may impact people working in seasonal industries. If they're considered over-users of the system, then the Maritimes will be hurt again.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

PNP and the Media

The Brits have a wonderful word often used in the media there: dodgy... not quite illegal, but certainly not right either. It's how I, and many others felt about the Provincial Nominee Program (the infamous PNP) since it started making headlines in 2008-2009.  There is nothing new about immigrant investor programs, Canada has had them for decades.  Provincial governments here used to control the proceeds through funds that would provide the capital for projects like the Crowbush Golf Course. Local community development organizations would be created to provide the illusion of a private sector project using government money in order to meet the federal rules on how the funds could be used. In the earlier versions the immigrant investors would get the money back after roughly four years, but no interest was paid, and with rates much higher than they are now, this provided substantial savings to groups behind these projects. I could never find any direct involvement by the immigrant investors in the projects then either.

The version that created so much controversy, and was ended by Ottawa, stripped the immigrant investor program down to its basics: pay  200 thousand dollars (plus good will, language training etc), you won't get it back, but you and your family will be fast tracked to becoming Canadian citizens.  The challenge as a reporter covering the story was that it was more of a morality tale than anything else, there didn't appear to be any obvious victims, other than the businesses whose lawyers and accountants didn't get them into the program.  It always looked as if the immigrants were getting what they wanted, Canadian citizenship, and an opportunity for their children to learn English. The PEI businesses got multiples of 30 to 40 thousand dollars that never had to repaid (money for nothing goes the  Dire Straits song), and the middle people (intermediaries, lawyers, accountants, etc.)  and the provincial government made out like bandits. Many  businesses were saved by the infusion of cash during a recession, and surely the middle people spent some of their tens of millions locally on cars, renovations and the like.  Sure it makes PEI look like a banana republic, but what's the harm?

We know all too well that justice or fairness isn't the conclusion to most morality tales. Jason Kenny huffs and puffs about RCMP investigations and states the obvious: "This isn't how this program is supposed to work!!"   The recent excellent work by the King's College journalism students (led by Fred Valance Jones who was once a reporter with CBC here in Charlottetown) gave me at least a better understanding of the personal costs of the program. ( ) It's what happens when you put flesh and blood into a story, get to hear what the participants actually felt. The language/experience barriers when I was covering the story were immense. You had families new to PEI, often staying in motels, who'd walked away from their previous lives, and even with a translator, were very reluctant to be critical of anyone.  Now those that stayed are a little more settled, and able to reflect on what's happened.

The Kings College students really followed in the footsteps of  Peter Rukavina in their use of the on-line PEI corporate registry to better understand who benefited from the program. Peter created a program to allow anyone to link names  with companies and visa-versa, and companies that included directors with foreign or Asian last names gave a good hint (not proof) that they had received PNP units. The PEI government shut down Peter's work, so the King's College students did the heavy lifting of downloading the provincial data, sifting through it using the same last name criteria, and then creating their own searchable database.   (look on the RHS of the page).

Then being journalists they took the extra step of calling about 300 companies that fit the criteria to check out their experience with PNP.  Most hung up, or refused to answer. That says to me there's at least some shame at work here, even, as reflected in the King's stories,  some regret by a few that they had got involved in the program in the first place.

None of this is "breaking news" or proof of illegal activity and it certainly looks like CBC struggled with what to do with the King's College information. The day it came out there were stories on crows  in Stratford, but nothing on PNP.   We do have to remember that CBC spent a lot of money and news reporting time  on its effort to use the courts to force the provincial government to release the names of the companies who received PNP units.  Here is a way of getting this very information, so it begs the question what CBC would do with it if it's ever successful. (and I know there are FOI and transparency issues here too).   The Guardian did re-publish the stories it did on PNP (Teresa Wright did some excellent reporting), which at least acknowledges that the King's College work has importance.

It is a story that works much better in print than on radio and especially television. It's complex, it would take the time and budget of a Fifth Estate piece to properly get the video and interviews in Hong Kong, Damascus, etc., to build up enough trust with businesses here to get insight into what the money was used for.  How often can we see the "guilty building" shots (and I used them too) of  PEI"s Innovation Department headquarters or the one-time demonstration by immigrants more upset about not getting back their good-faith and language deposits, than the PNP program itself.  And again with no obvious victims (other than Olive Crane in her tireless efforts to make Islanders care about what happened), broadcast stories always felt a little hollow. The real people in the King's College stories is what makes them important.

There will be more developments in this story. The province will issue some kind of report on what the money was used for, and this will further show how far it strayed from the original intent of the immigrant investor program. There will be nominees that Ottawa will turn down who will want their money back (that will amount to possibly tens of millions of dollars, and the province says it has a contingency fund to cover this, let's hope it does).  Maybe the Federal Immigration Department will indicate how pissed off/disappointed/whatever it is in PEI.

Full disclosure: I, nor my partner, nor anyone in my family have ever received any PNP units, although when they heard about the details, they certainly wished they'd at least had the opportunity, but they may sleep more soundly that they didn't.

Friday, 4 May 2012

More on Organic vs. Conventional Farming

Another take on the Nature study of the productivity of organic vs. conventional farming.  I've never been a big fan of either/or solutions to anything (it used to drive my producer bosses at CBC crazy, because the media demands black and white) but this article (which quotes the actual researchers) gets closer to something  constructive.  It also speaks to the challenge of making a PEI a totally "organic" production area. It's not that I don't want that to happen, it's just that farmers have to live and market in the real world and some commodities (grains in particular) are much less productive grown organically. That could change with seed breeding and more research, or the development of an organic livestock industry that demands organic feedgrains (it really up to consumers to show a willingness to support this, something we don't see yet).  There are successful organic potato growers here as well (Fred Dollar for one), but with such a large percentage of the crop now going to processing the premium needed to grow organically just isn't there right now. (again if McDonalds starts selling organic french fries that could change, but that seems a long way off). 

I remember the first time I heard Dr. Stewart Hill speak in the 1970's. He was the head of ecological agriculture at MacDonald College near Montreal, and he continues to be  a leader in organic farming research at a university in Australia. He said farmers have to use their heads when it comes to fighting diseases and insects, and choose the approach that has the least impact on the environment. That wasn't necessarily  the organic choice. Sometimes one application of a synthetic pesticide will solve a problem that might require several applications of an organic one (and don't forget that organic pesticides are just as lethal, and in many cases less selective- they kill a wide number of pests not just the one you want to get-  than synthetic ones). Hill's mantra, try to deeply understand the problem and the solution will be self-evident. I think that's a sensible approach and why I want farmers to get the best advice and research available, not just suggestions from chemical company salespeople.

Study Points to Roles for Industry and Organics in Agriculture
by ANDREW C. REVKIN  •  April 25, 2012

A paper in this week’s issue of Nature reinforces the argument that a hybrid path in agriculture — incorporating both industrial-style production and organic practices where they make sense — gives the best chance of feeding some 9 billion people by midcentury with the fewest regrets.

The paper, “Comparing the yields of organic and conventional agriculture,” is by a doctoral student, Verena Seufert, and the geography professor Navin Ramankutty, both of McGill University, and Jonathan Foley, the director of the Institute on the Environment of the University of Minnesota. They found that, over all, conventional farming methods produced 25 percent higher yields than organic techniques, but organic came close for certain crops in certain soils. The authors’ core conclusion?

    [T]here are no simple ways to determine a clear ‘winner’ for all possible farming situations. However, instead of continuing the ideologically charged ‘organic versus conventional’ debate, we should systematically evaluate the costs and benefits of different management options. In the end, to achieve sustainable food security we will probably need many different techniques — including organic, conventional, and possible ‘hybrid’ systems — to produce more food at affordable prices, ensure livelihoods for farmers, and reduce the environmental costs of agriculture….

    To establish organic agriculture as an important tool in sustainable food production, the factors limiting organic yields need to be more fully understood, alongside assessments of the many social, environmental and economic benefits of organic farming systems.

I caught up with Foley by e-mail, saying that the paper appeared to paint a picture in which cereals, particularly, benefit from fertilizer and the other inputs favored in large-scale farming, while specialty crops can offer smaller farming operations sustainable levels of income. Here’s his reaction:

    We really need new “hybrid” approaches, taking the best of the conventional and organic paradigms, and deploying them when and where they make the most sense.

    In this study we found that organic systems can compete very well with conventional farms when it comes to fruits and many kinds of vegetables. And they do very well (understandably) with legumes. That’s the good news for organic farming.

    Where organic has a lot of ground to make up is in the major grains, especially staples like wheat and rice. There we found that organic farms have significantly lower yields than their conventional counterparts.. And since most of the world’s bulk calories come from these cereals, this is a really big deal. Organic practices, as we know them today, just cannot produce the same volume of grain calories that conventional farms do on the same land base. That assumes, of course, that our goal is to grow calories — which is only one measure of food production and only one aspect of food security.

    The bottom line? Today’s organic farming practices are probably best deployed in fruit and vegetable farms, where growing nutrition (not just bulk calories) is the primary goal. But for delivering sheer calories, especially in our staple crops of wheat, rice, maize, soybeans and so on, conventional farms have the advantage right now.

    Looking forward, I think we will need to deploy different kinds of practices (especially new, mixed approaches that take the best of organic and conventional farming systems) where they are best suited — geographically, economically, socially, etc.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

An Important Question

It's really one of those value issues that tests your beliefs, your gut, along with your brain.   The scientific journal Nature has published a hard, systematic study of the productivity of organic versus conventional farming, in other words how much food is produced on a given amount of land using different farming methods. This matters in a hungry world, and even in developed countries where consumers expect bountiful supplies and cheap prices. For those of us who like ambiguity, and the opportunity to keep arguing about things, this study doesn't disappoint. Writer Tom Philpott does an excellent job of acknowledging the findings, but then quickly showing why they can't all be taken at face value. This is a useful exercise,  although I think  it will continue to be values that push farmers into becoming organic, not economic or productivity considerations.

A couple of pieces that come at this study from slightly different perspectives (don't want to make this too easy).

Organic farming is rarely enough
by Natasha Gilbert  •  April 25, 2012

Organic farming is sometimes touted as a way to feed the world's burgeoning population without destroying the environment. But the evidence for that has been hotly debated.

Now, a comprehensive analysis of the existing science, published in Nature1, suggests that farming without the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides could supply needs in some circumstances. But yields are lower than in conventional farming, so producing the bulk of the globe’s diet will require agricultural techniques including the use of fertilizers, the study concludes.

“I think organic farming does have a role to play because under some conditions it does perform pretty well,” says Verena Seufert, an Earth system scientist at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, and the study’s lead author. But “overall, organic yields are significantly lower than conventional yields”, she says.
Area under inspection

Seufert's meta-analysis reviewed 66 studies comparing the yields of 34 different crop species in organic and conventional farming systems. The researchers included only studies that assessed the total land area used, allowing them to compare crop yields per unit area. Many previous studies that have showed large yields for organic farming ignore the size of the area planted — which is often bigger than in conventional farming.

Crop yields from organic farming are as much as 34% lower than those from comparable conventional farming practices, the analysis finds. Organic agriculture performs particularly poorly for vegetables and some cereal crops such as wheat, which make up the lion’s share of the food consumed around the world.

Cereals and vegetables need lots of nitrogen to grow, suggesting that the yield differences are in large part attributable to nitrogen deficiencies in organic systems, says Seufert.

In conventional agricultural systems, farmers apply chemical fertilizers to fields while the crops are growing, delivering key nutrients such as nitrogen when the crops need it most. Organic approaches, such as laying crop residue on the soil surface, build up nutrients over a longer period of time. “There is not the synchrony between supply of nutrients and crop demand,” says Andrew MacDonald, a soil scientist at Rothamsted Research, an agricultural-science institute in Harpenden, UK.
Fruitful farming

Organic approaches fare better when producing fruits such as strawberries — which have yields only 3% lower than in conventional farming — and oilseed crops such as soybean, which have 11% lower yields. Organic farmers can boost yields of less-productive crops through land-management practices, such as planting them in rotation with leguminous crops that fix nitrogen into the soil, says Seufert.

“There is still a big yield difference but the study does suggest organic systems have the potential to produce comparable yields, but in a very limited number of crops,” says Sonja Vermeulen, director of research for the climate change and agricultural Copenhagen-based programme led by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research .

The present study considered only yield differences; Seufert's next project is to analyse existing research on the environmental impacts of organic and conventional agriculture. She is also planning original field research to assess how the two systems compare in developing countries, where reliable data is lacking.

“This is where yield increases are most needed,” says Seufert.

Time To Stop Worrying and Learn To Love Industrial Agriculture?
by Tom Philpott

Like a good buffet, Nature's recent meta-analysis comparing the productivity of industrial and organic agriculture offered something for every taste.

For enthusiasts of large-scale, chemical-intensive agriculture, there was this headline finding: Yields on organic farming—the amount of crop produced per acre—are on average 25 percent lower than those of industrial farming.

And for biodiversity fans like me, the study had a caveat: Most of organic's so-called yield penalty lies in grain crops like wheat; for fruit and some vegetables, organic ag is nearly (but not quite) as productive as its chemical-laced counterpart.

It was interesting to see how the story played around the web. Time's Bryan Walsh, who has been a critic of Big Food in the past, saw the study as the occasion to stop worrying and learn to love industrial agriculture—or at least marvel at its efficiency. "Whole Food Blues: Why Organic Agriculture May Not Be So Sustainable," declared Walsh's headline. "Conventional farming gets more and more crop per sq. foot of cultivated land—over 170 bushels of corn per acre in Iowa, for example—which can mean less territory needs to be converted from wilderness to farmland," he wrote. (Parke Wilde of Food Policy has a good rejoinder to Walsh.)

Meanwhile, according to the veteran New York Times climate reporter Andy Revkin the Nature study actually makes a strong case for it. The paper points to a "hybrid path in agriculture," Revkin wrote, one "incorporating both industrial-style production and organic practices where they make sense." Given how relatively little land is devoted to organic ag both globally and here in the US, Revkin's reading would mean significantly expanding organic ag.

What do I take away from the Nature paper? I think it's too narrow in scope to offer many insights at all.

First of all, it's important to understand what the researchers did. They rounded up all the rigorously documented studies, both domestic and global, they could find that compared organic yields and conventional yields (66 studies met their criteria) and averaged them out. The only focus was gross output per acre—no consideration of, say, ecological trouble like the plight of honeybees and other pollinators in a sea of pesticide-laced crops, or resources consumed, like synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, which is made with natural gas. So, despite what Walsh wrote, the study didn't really tell us much about the relative efficiency of the systems beyond output per chunk of land. Viewed through the study's yield-per-acre lens, industrial agriculture looks hyper-efficient, and organic like a laggard.

And indeed, big farms in Iowa—the example Time's Walsh pointed to—do produce mountains of corn per acre. But dig a little deeper, and the picture muddies. The authors note that conventional ag produces high yields through abundant use of synthetic nitrogen fertilzer. But they don't account for the fact that nitrogen runoff from farms generate also contributes to a massive annual dead zone that snuffs out a swath if what should be a highly productive fishery in the Gulf of Mexico. Such "externalities," as economists call them, are not accounted for in the study.

Moreover, the study's fixation on yield puts a shiny gloss on a system that actually wastes huge amounts of resources. Let's take corn again. According to the National Corn Growers Association, more than a quarter of US farmland, around 90 million acres, is typically planted in corn, more than any other crop. US corn agriculture is indeed productive—our farmers churn out about 40 percent of the globe's entire corn crop each year. If the aim was to use those calories efficiently, we'd focus on consuming them directly—in, say, the form of corn bread, polenta, tortillas, or cereal.

How much do we consume directly of this bountiful crop? According to NCGA's figures from 2010, less than 2 percent. More than 40 percent of it goes into the mouths of animals we then consume, in the process squandering huge amounts of resources. According to Earth Policy Institute, it takes seven pounds of grain to produce a pound of beef—the rest is lost to the huge parts of the carcass we don't consume. Pork and chicken are more efficient, but it still requires four pounds and two pounds, respectively, of grain to produce a pound of their meat.

Another third of the corn crop or so goes to ethanol, bypassing our stomachs and gushing into our gas tanks instead (and delivering little or no net energy in the process). Nearly 20 percent is exported to other countries, mainly as livestock feed. The rest goes into products like high-fructose corn syrup and other sweeteners—leaving, again, just 2 percent for direct consumption.

Keep in mind, as you ponder the frivolous uses to which we put our biggest crop, that US corn is a massive user of agrichemicals. Using gross yield as a lens to judge the efficiency of our corn crop is like gauging the health of a steroid-addled bodybuilder by measuring his biceps.

Moreover, by focusing on yield, the authors presume that maximizing production should be the chief goal for ag policymakers. But as the eminent agriculture-development expert Hans Herren, president of the Millennium Institute, told me, the globe's farms are already producing 4,600 calories per day—enough in gross terms to support a population twice as large as the current one.

"We don't need to grow more food, we need to shift what we grow, where we grow it, and who grows it," Herren told me. He said that in places like Africa, east Asia, and South America, crop yields could be doubled "almost overnight" if farmers had the training and infrastructure to proper organic and/or low-input farming. Their crops yields might still lag behind, say, those of industrial-scale corn farmers in Iowa. "But they wouldn't need all of those inputs [like fertilizer and pesticides], and they'd produce more than enough food," he said. As for the US and Europe, "they would do well to grow less food and focus more on things like improving quality and building soil."

And even in terms of gross yield per acre, the Nature study might be misleading. Matthew Dilllon of Seed Matters, an expert on organic seeds, reminded me that seeds play a huge role in determining yields. Conventional farmers use seed varieties that are well adapted to great lashings of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation water, bolstered by decades and billions of dollars in research, much of it publicly funded. The availability and quality of seeds bred for organic farming is improving, but organic seed research remains in its infancy. "Most organic farmers are [still] using seed bred for conventional systems, or seed that has not been improved at all," Dillon wrote.

 Dillon pointed me to research from a team at Washington State University looking at the yield effect of using seeds adapted to organic agriculture. The study authors looked at wheat—a crop that the Nature paper identified as one that badly lags in yield for organic producers. They found organically managed fields planted with adapted seeds delivered yields as high as 31 percent over similar fields planted in unadapted seeds. Their conclusion:

    With crop cultivars bred in and adapted to the unique conditions inherent in organic systems, organic agriculture will be better able to realize its full potential as a high-yielding alternative to conventional agriculture.]

This raises a key issue: the paucity of funds we invest in organic research. According to the latest numbers I've seen, 4 percent of the food consumed in the United States—and 11 percent of the fruits and vegetables—are organic. How much of the USDA's research budget is devoted to organic research, including projects like developing proper organic seed lines? Less than 1 percent, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition Ferd Hoefner recently told me. The other 99 percent goes to industrial ag—yet another de facto public subsidy to the agrichemical industry.

I fear that a lot of policy makers and pundits will glance at the Nature study and conclude that at least the agricultural part of our food system isn't broken and doesn't need fixing. They're wrong.