“When Was The Last Time You Changed Your Mind?”

Last week I had the chance to attend a screening of a new movie about food production, breeding methods and technology at my alma matter, the University of Guelph. It was followed by a panel of a group of scientists and activists who I think I are really cool.

The Food Evolution movie tells the story of how genetically engineered crops are perceived by scientists, activists and the public and the friction between the groups to figure out how to provide enough food for a growing world population.  Narrated by Neil deGrasse Tyson, it compares the debate of genetically engineered crop use in Hawaii with the debate in Africa (Kenya and Uganda specifically).

Since I have not yet talked about genetically engineered (GE) or genetically modified organisms (GMOs), here is a quick crash course.

Genetically engineered (GE) organisms, also often referred to as genetically modified organisms (GMOs), are things that have had a gene from either a different species or a synthetically produced gene added to their DNA to allow the organism to have a trait it would not be able to get through traditional breeding methods or to have a trait appear faster than it would be able to through selective breeding.

This means that organisms can be improved to have more disease resistance, to have more nutrients that humans need in their diets, to have resistance to herbicides that can kill weeds, to maintain genetic diversity, to improve the hardiness of crops in the face of climate change, to improve animal welfare, and to more effectively produce livestock for human consumption.

Some genetically engineered products are already available – corn, soybeans, and cotton all have genetically engineered varieties that are widely used, as well as sugar beets, alfalfa, papaya, squash, canola, and potatoes.  There are also apples, salmon and eggplant (brinjal) that are starting to come to the market now.

Some consumers and activists are ardently opposed to the use and sale of genetically engineered products for a variety of reasons, including playing God, concerns about effects on the environment, food safety and human health concerns. However, there is no scientific evidence of these concerns being actual problems across thousands of scientific studies and there is a consensus among scientists that GE products are safe. The problems lie in the fact that the people opposed to GE crops are often so passionately opposed to them that they are able to sway politicians into banning these crop and animal varieties and that keeps these products out of the hands of the people who would benefit most from them.

Two resources that I like to point people to when they have more questions about GE technology are the Genetic Literacy Project and GMO Answers. For those of you wondering why I keep using the term GE instead of GMO, Dr. Kevin Folta recently wrote a piece about how use of language matters in the technology debate, although it is generally accepted that the two are interchangeable (you may remember Kevin from my first post as someone who helped me get this blog off the ground).

Food Evolution explains the fear associated with GE products but then goes through the scientific process and allows the research to be explained by renowned scientists.  It features skeptics, farmers, politicians and researchers from both America and Africa. It particularly focuses on the Rainbow Papaya in Hawaii and bacterial wilt-resistant bananas for Africa, two crops that are able to resist diseases which are crippling to them when the diseases occur. These crops are another tool farmers can use to help produce a viable crop for consumers and they bring in enough money when sold to allow the farmers producing them to make a living.

The movie screening was followed by a panel with Dr. Kevin Folta, Dr. Allison van Eenannaam, Mark Lynas, Adam Kighoma Malima, Robert Wager and Dr. CS Prakash.  Prior to the movie screening, the audience was polled to see where they stood on genetically engineered products. 90% of the audience was in favour of the use of GE crops and the rest were opposed or unsure. Personally, I found it interesting how the first 90 minutes of the panel was made up of questions from people who were very opposed to GE technology, even though the made up the minority of the audience.  Some had thoughtful, valid concerns, about things like how a neighbour growing GE crops would affect their organic crops, while others had questions that seemed intent on out-foxing the panel and trying to force them into saying something they didn’t mean (the panel handled it much more gracefully than I would have…).  By the end of the night though, the tone of the questions changed, and the pro-GE part of the audience started asking more questions, wanting to know how we in the audience could support science, science communication, and bringing the technology into the hands of the people who need it.

I took a lot of notes over the course of the movie and the panel, and true to form, I cannot read a damn word I wrote. As such, some of the more refined points I wanted to bring up are squiggles that I can’t unravel.  The title of this piece is a quote I can read though, and I thought it was powerful because everyone who holds an opinion on GE crops (or any other debatable subject) often feels very strongly about the matter. Be it science, politics, religion, it is often hard to change your mind and even harder to admit that you have. That seems to be part of the problem with people in the GE debate, and that is part of what makes panel-speaker Mark Lynas so credible in the GE debate because he was so opposed to the technology for so long.

The other quote that stuck with me (and that I can read!), was one from Dr. Allison van Eenannaam in the panel, where she asked:

“How do we make people evaluate the risks based on what is more likely to be bad? The risks people worry about are the ones they don’t have control over, like the way people are more afraid of flying than they are of driving, even though driving is more dangerous.”

I find this poignant because at this point in time there are quite literally thousands of studies saying that GE crops are safe (including this meta-analysis of 1783 studies from a 10 year period), but because so many people are so far removed from the food system and are really trusting the people growing, processing, auditing and regulating their food to keep it safe, the general public can be wary of GE foods.

I think movies like this help. I think hearing from a panel of experts like I did helps. I think people who support the technology sharing information about it with people who don’t know or are indifferent helps.

Unfortunately, the screening last week was the only Canadian one scheduled so far and no US, Canadian or European broadcasters have picked up the movie to air it.  I’m hoping that Netflix will pick it up because then it will likely be accidentally stumbled upon by a person who would not necessarily watch the movie if it was shown on a TV station.

If you get the chance, please go see this movie, it is so worth it.

Robotic Farming

Technology. With a device that fits in my pocket, I can access information from around the world in a few quick seconds. I instead choose to use that technology to watch this parrot video, repeatedly, giggling every time.

Like all other aspects of human life, technology has infiltrated farming too and it is really cool (as least, I think it is).  From robotic milking parlours for cows, automated feeders for pigs, hydroponics for vegetables or combines accurate down to the half inch for harvesting corn and soy, technology, robotics and automation are now a major part of how many Canadian farmers grow our food.

Despite the fact that 2.1 million Canadians work in food and agriculture, only 2% of Canadians are actually farmers (I got these numbers from Farm and Food Care’s latest issue of “The Real Dirt on Farming“.  It is a great resource and I strongly recommend you skim through it if you’ve got some time!).  This means that fewer people need to raise and harvest more food, and the best way to do that is to rely on technologies that can help us meet those demands.

For many livestock farmers, automation comes in the form of barn controls.  Chickens, turkeys and pigs are happiest when their barn temperature and humidity is kept within a certain range, so farmers will have their ventilation systems programmed to acceptable ranges (a comfortable 22°-25°C for laying hens usually, higher for young pigs and chicks and lower for meat chickens and turkeys).  If the sensors in the barn sense that the temperature is out of the acceptable range the barn alarm, which is usually connected to a farmer’s cell phone, will go off and the farmer will either be able to correct the settings from their phone or go to the barn to adjust it manually.

The average Canadian egg farm has nearly 21,000 hens  and most of those birds will be laying an egg per day.  That’s a lot of eggs to collect by hand, so many farmers will have egg conveyor belts to bring the eggs to one end of the barn, and then an egg packer machine to put the eggs onto trays to be sent to market.  This video from How It’s Made shows how eggs are collected on a farm using robotics and how eggs are graded to go to market in a grading facility. The video is a little blunt and mentions that at the end of the flock cycle, the hens are sent to slaughter.  Increasingly, some farmers are opting to humanely euthanize all of their birds on their farms instead of sending them to market, as the birds have very little meat and it is not high quality, so the payment is not always worth the time, labour and stress to the birds required to get them to market.

Dairy farms are also seeing a lot more automation, and I think they have the coolest robots.  Dairy cows need to be milked 2-3 times per day and the average Holstein cow (the black and white ones, for you city folks) can produce around 34L per day. Obviously, this takes a while, so having robots that can do the milking at 4am instead of humans is wonderful. Cows will walk into the milking machine, a robotic arm will clean their teats and then a laser will guide the milker onto their teat.  Cows will often wear radio tags on collars, in their ears or on theirs legs that will let a farmer know how much time they are spending eating, lying down, milking, sleeping, and if anything is out of the ordinary, a farmer will have all that information and can determine if there is something wrong with the cow or the feed.  Bloomberg did this great video of a Manitoba dairy farm that had converted entirely to a robotic system and now didn’t have to worry about staffing shortages while also having their cows be more productive. This farm is a lot bigger than the average sized Canadian dairy farm, but it is a great example of robotics in action.

Lastly, robotic harvesters are becoming very competitive with using humans for harvesting. In both Canada and the US, a lot of crops, particularly fruits and vegetables, rely on temporary foreign workers coming in from Mexico and other parts of Central America to collect fruits and veggies for sales. This is a huge socio-economic situation that I don’t feel confident enough to wade into, but gist of it is that the more robotics involved in harvesting food, the fewer migrants needed to be brought in for that (which has benefits and flaws in and of itself). Searching “Robotic Crop Harvester” on Youtube takes you down a rabbit hole of hundreds of videos gathering all sorts of different crops.  Some of my favourites from that search are this one for carrots, this cherry harvesting video (almonds are harvested the exact same way), lettuce harvesting in California and this prototype for a strawberry harvester.

Not every farmer has the capital to invest in these kinds of technologies, and that’s ok.  As they become more popular, the cost of the machinery will likely continue to decrease and newer innovations will likely make these robotics even more efficient.  With fewer people wanting to work on farms, I think automation and robotics is going to be a huge factor in feeding the planet going forward.

 

I know the cover photo at the top of this post is not quite a state-of-the-art tractor, but it is incredibly hard to find a free photo of any robotic farming equipment, so I had to settle for a very pretty picture instead.

Agriculture and Mental Health

This post is going to take an admittedly different turn, so please bear with me here.

If you’re Canadian then chances are you know that today, January 25th is #BellLetsTalk day. Telecommunications giant, Bell, challenges Canadians to start a conversation about mental health across the country and for every phone call and text to or from a Bell-supported cell phone, every long distance call on a Bell-supported landline, every share of the hashtag #BellLetsTalk on Twitter and Instagram, every view of their video on Facebook, and every use of the geofilter on Snapchat, 5¢ is donated to mental health initiatives across the country. A nickel doesn’t seem like a lot, but the campaign has raised over $6 million this way since its inception in 2010. Combined with donations from other companies, individuals and government grants, this initiative has raised $79 million.  While some people are uncomfortable with the prospect of a large corporation using mental health and people’s struggles to make a charitable donation which helps Bell net a nice tax break, from seeing my own friends share their personal experiences on social media and from seeing where the raised dollars have been spent, it’s undeniable that #BellLetsTalk day has had an impact.

So how does this tie in with agriculture? A recent survey of Canadian farmers from my alma mater shows that a good number of Canadian producers are struggling (of those surveyed 45% were reporting high stress, 53% were reporting some degree of anxiety, and 35% were reporting depression).  It’s not a side of agriculture you think about – I certainly didn’t until the article popped up on my school website’s homepage.

Farm life sounds idyllic, right? Watching the sunrise as you walk to the barn, big beautiful fields of corn, wheat and canola, a barn full of baby animals you can pick up and cuddle whenever you feel like it, being your own boss, and watching the sunset after a long day of satisfying hard work.

Not quite.

Those things are all perks, but there’s also a lot of stressors that need to be considered. Many producers work seven days a week, with long hours every day.  Often they are at the mercy of Mother Nature, with weather too hot, too cold, too wet, too dry, and occasionally a combination of all four in one day. Add to that disease threats to crops and livestock, the stress of desperately trying to save an animal’s life only to have them not survive, commodity prices changing, the challenges associated with being a business owner, a lack of public knowledge about what farmers do all day, abuse on social media from animal rights activists and anti-GMO activists, and bonehead government regulations from politicians who’ve never gotten mud on their boots and it makes sense that sometimes farmers can feel overwhelmed.

Now combine that with the fact that 1 in 6 veterinarians have considered suicide and they now have one of the highest suicide rates of all professional degrees. The Canadian Veterinary Journal has a wonderfully written article about suicide rates and why they are so high among vets. Things like being naturally high achievers, the competitiveness of getting into vet school after an undergraduate degree, compassion fatigue, euthanasia, overhead costs, client expectations, and having the knowledge of and access to high-powered pharmaceuticals are all factors that can have a detrimental effect on the mental well-being of a veterinarian.

That creates a bit of a bleak prospect for the people growing our food, doesn’t it? Members of the agriculture community are starting to recognize the growing problem that poor mental health and mental illness is and now industry conferences are starting to feature sessions on mental health and well-being.  The Ontario Veterinary College now employs a full-time social worker to help veterinary students manage their mental health. These are great first steps in removing some of the stigma associated with mental illness. Continuing a conversation about mental illness and mental well-being is imperative to helping people who struggle get help.  The next steps should be improving mental healthcare access in rural communities, which are under-supported relative to their urban counterparts. This is a bigger hurdle to tackle and will likely take many years to come to fruition. Things like supporting charities that work to improve mental health services like the Canadian Mental Health Association or Healthy Minds Canada or reminding politicians that mental healthcare is just as important to a national healthcare plan as cardiac care or cancer prevention are small things you can do that will benefit the entire Canadian population. Even small things like use of language have an impact, like not saying “Oh, I’m so OCD” when you like things to be arranged in a familiar way or not saying “S/he’s acting bipolar” when someone is showing strong emotions have a small, but noticeable, impact on easing the stigma associated with mental illness.

For clarification, while everyone has mental health, not everyone has mental illness. This guide explains the difference better than I can, but the gist of it is that mental health is a form of well-being where a person can handle life’s normal stresses while mental illness is a clinically diagnosable condition that an individual may have.

I certainly don’t know what the answers are to solve all of this.  What I do know is that mental illness is an invisible illness, and things like having a frank discussion about mental health and taking people seriously when they say they are struggling are effective actions that anyone can do.

If you’re struggling, I’ve listed some resources at the bottom of the post that might be helpful to anyone, not just people in agriculture.

 

I have to offer the biggest of Thank You’s to my friend Ilana, for giving this blog post a nice proof read to make sure that all of the mental health information was presented in the best possible way.  This topic was a little out of my comfort zone, so I am very grateful she agreed to edit!

Canadian Mental Health Association

Good2Talk (For post-secondary students in Ontario)

Healthy Minds Canada

Here 24/7 (Waterloo/Wellington region of Ontario only)

Mental Health Helpline (Ontario only)

 

Egg Basics

I went out for dinner with an old friend the other night, a friend  who I’m a little ashamed to say I haven’t seen much of recently (I’m admitting that so that this becomes my public reminder to do better). We had a lot to talk about – my new job, her grad school research, our families, our friends, how delicious dinner was and my blog came up.  She, like many other people in my life, had read the first post and was very supportive of me. She asked me what I was going to write next. I told her I wasn’t sure and I was a little stuck.

Don’t get me wrong, I love writing and I have a couple half-finished posts sitting in my drafts folder.  But I wasn’t really sure which one I should start with.  Do I dive in to current ag topics like Dairy Farmers of Canada changing their logo or how Donald Trump hasn’t picked a Department of Agriculture Secretary yet? Do I go for the perpetual hot-button topics like GMO food, hormones and antibiotics in meat, or animal welfare? Or do I find my favourite science myths and start ranting about them?

My friend talked about her research on feeding behaviour in dairy cows and how she had a new volunteer in the lab who didn’t come from a farming background, much like the both of us.  This volunteer was apparently amazed at how much cows poop (if you’re wondering, they poop a lot). We started swapping stories of the things we had been amazed to learn about agriculture (chickens rely on only one ovary to produce their eggs, non-castrated male pigs produce off-flavoured meat) and it clicked that maybe starting with the very basics, at least until I had enough of an archive built up to reference back to, would be a good place to begin.

With that in mind, I would like to offer you a quick crash course in different eggs at the grocery store, since eggs and chickens are what I know best.

White vs Brown Eggs: You may have noticed a price difference between white and brown eggs, usually about 10¢ more per half dozen for brown eggs.  This is because chickens that lay brown eggs eat more food than chickens that lay white eggs, so there is a higher feed cost associated with producing brown eggs. Some people believe that there is a nutritional difference between white and brown eggs but when you break down the components, they have the exact same nutritional value.  The brown colour of egg shells is actually a pigment that is deposited on the shell in the 90 minutes before a bird lays it.  If you look at the header photo on this post, you’ll see that there’s a variety of different shades of brown that eggs can come in.  These are sorted out at an egg grading station, so that the whole eggs you see in a carton in a store look nice and uniform.  The other eggs are still completely edible, just not as quickly purchased at a grocery store, so they go into the breaker market.

Blue and Green Eggs: These actually exist. You won’t find them in big North American grocery stores but people with hobby farms might have some coloured egg layers around for fun. Blue eggs come from specific breeds of chicken, like the Ameruacana chickens, and the blue pigment goes through the shell, so the eggs are blue on the inside (as opposed to brown eggs, which are white on the inside).  Green eggs are produced by cross breeding a blue egg laying breed with a brown egg laying breed.

Processed with VSCOcam with hb2 preset
Blue and brown eggs. Source: Autumn Mott, StockSnap

Omega3 Eggs: These are a relatively new addition to the egg shelf.  The chickens that produce these eggs have flax seed or fish oil included in their diets and that allows them to lay eggs with higher amounts of Omega3 in them.  The increase in this good fat may not be the best source of Omega3 though, so it is still better to rely on eating oily fish like salmon or trout. The Globe and Mail did a good article on Omega3 eggs a couple years back.

Enriched Cages, Free Run, and Free Range: All of these labels explain how the chickens who laid the eggs were housed. The Egg Farmers of Alberta have a nice little summary of all the different housing styles, including a fact sheet with a comparison of welfare in different housing styles. Conventional cages are what has been used in Canada for decades and are essentially cages that just have food and water in them. They are no longer allowed to be built in Canada and will be completely out of use by 2036.  That seems like a long time from now, but it is hard to overhaul an entire supply chain. Enriched or furnished cages allow for more space for the birds, perches, scratch pads and nest boxes.  Free run means that the birds are loose in the barns, with nest boxes and perches available.  In some instances, these barns can have different levels for the chickens to hop and fly up to.  Finally, free range is similar to free run, but the birds spend time outside as well.  This one can be a little challenging for a few reasons, most notably the 5-month-long-hell all Canadians must endure, called winter. Like myself, chickens are happiest at a comfortable 20·C temperature and if the weather is too cold or too hot, the birds can get cold or heat stressed, respectively, so there’s only certain temperatures when they can comfortably go outside. There is also some concern with wild birds shedding disease (like avian influenza) or a predator attack with free range birds.  Ultimately, it is up to a farmer to decide which housing system works best for them.

Fertile Eggs: This last one drives me nuts. In Canada, no eggs in a supermarket are fertile. A hen will lay an egg regardless of whether she has mated with a rooster and in Canadian egg barns, there are only female birds thus making fertilization impossible. Some people claim that they bought eggs at a grocery store and “saw a chick starting to form”. Chances are, they saw some white, squiggly, tissue-like material attached to the yolk.  These are called the chalaza and are proteins designed to keep the yolk suspended in the right spot in the shell.  They are seen mostly in fresh eggs, and the older an egg gets, the less visible the chalaza will be.

Hopefully this summary gives you a better sense of what all the labels on the egg shelf in the grocery store mean!

A photo by JOHN TOWNER. unsplash.com/photos/0uN9iF4mgDI
I’m including this picture solely because I think it’s really funny. It’s like the hen is modelling for the camera. Source: John Towner, StockSnap

 

Do It.

When I was 6, I remember telling my parents I wanted to be a farmer. My parents, wonderfully supportive people, laughed the way you do when a kid says something dumb and let it go. We lived in a Toronto suburb, there was virtually no farming left in the city at that time and save for my maternal grandmother growing up on a farm, my family was a few generations removed from farming.

When I was 8, my career goals switched to being a cowboy (cow-woman?). I was under the belief that all cowboys needed to be able to play the guitar so that they could sing songs around a campfire after a long day of horse riding and cattle sorting (like I said, nice suburban up-bringing, no farm knowledge). I got guitar lessons out of that but after a year of awkwardly plucking along, I gave that up.

My career goals switched up a bit more after that (professional horseback rider, teacher, scientist, prime minister of Canada) but I eventually decided to go to university with the goal of being a veterinarian.  I realized about a year and a half into my degree that the stress and competition involved in getting into vet school wasn’t for me so I began looking into alternatives. My degree fell under the school’s agriculture college and since I had liked everything I had learned up to that point about agriculture and I knew there were jobs waiting in that field (pun intended), I focused all my attention on learning as much as I could about it.  I’ve since graduated and have landed a great job working with an animal genetics company.

The most important thing I learned while I was in school is that the average person doesn’t know a lot about where their food comes from.  It’s not the average person’s fault – in Canada, with less than 2% of the population still farming, most people don’t see a need to put more thought into their food, its just waiting for them to buy it at the grocery store.  For many people they have no interest in learning more and that’s ok for them.  But for those of you who want to know more, or my friends and family who’ve kindly clicked on the blog link to support me, or a stranger who may have stumbled across my blog, this is for you.

A couple months ago, I got to hear one of my favourite research scientists speak. His name is Dr. Kevin Folta and he does research on fruit and vegetable flavours and growing plants under artificial lights at the University of Florida and more importantly, he does at lot of science communication and outreach (You can check out his blog and podcast here). I shot him an email after his talk and it was his encouragement that got me to start this blog. I was feeling nervous, afraid of activists coming after me, afraid of writing something that was bad, concerned that I might embarrass myself along the way.  His words stuck with me:

“You just have to start.  It will never be perfect, especially at first…To build and grow, you must start with something.  I’d recommend the blog. Do it.”

So that’s how I’ve gotten to this point.  I’m going to aim to post something every other week, sharing cool agriculture facts and trying a little bit of myth-busting along the way. I promise to share all my sources so you can read up on stuff more if you want.  I’m happy to take suggestions on things anyone wants me to write about, so feel free to hit me with science questions that maybe you think are too silly to ask someone (they’re not silly questions, not asking is the silly thing). Finally, I promise that if I ever post something that is inaccurate I’ll correct it.  I hope it doesn’t happen, but if it does I promise to rectify it as soon as it does.

So here we go.  Let’s do it.

 

Edit: The first version of this said that Kevin Folta does his research on citrus greening. I got that wrong and he corrected me, his research is on fruit and vegetable flavours and growing plants under artificial lights. See, I corrected something that I had mistaken!