International Climate Day a Canadian Farm Perspective

October 26, 2009

This past Saturday was an International Day of Action Against Climate Change. People around the world participated in rally’s to show their support. There were or 5200 events in 181 countries. On of the largest events in Canada was planned and run by a student of the University of Guelph, Gracen Johnsen, she planned an event called Fill the Hill where thousands of Canadians  joined her on Parliament Hill in Ottawa to bring the message to our government and the Nation. The wide range of people that showed up to the event showed great dedication and passion as they danced in the rain in front of the Parliament buildings.  There were also events held in many other Canadian cities including Vancouver, Montreal and even Whitehorse.

This shows a united front of people from all across the country and around the world, from diverse educational and political backgrounds assembling to say that global climate change effects us all. So why aren’t people impressed and why aren’t people taking about what happened on Saturday?  Well we’ve all heard it before, we’ve heard of its global impacts and that we all need to stand up for this cause.  Another reason we aren’t talking about it is because the media isn’t talking about it, sure all the major media outlets did a story on it, but none of them made their top ten stories on Sunday or Monday. These stories didn’t attract many new discussions or debates that haven’t already been discussed over and over again.  Here in lies the problem, we’ve all heard the arguments before the reasons have not changed the science isn’t anymore bulletproof as before so we all end up having the same discussions and debates. No one wants to have the same debate over again we’ve heard the view points, we know where we stand and thats all we care to know.

The environmental movement needs a new face a new front from which to launch new debates and cause people to end up making different decisions. Asking the same people the same questions over and over given they have the same knowledge of the situation makes them come to the same conclusion over and over again, and eventually they stop caring or even listening. I’m afraid thats where the environmental movement is at today! How can we as farmers and the agricultural industry change the face of the environmental movement and spark new debate. We can show the real world implications of environmental policies, impacts of climate change and how many different ways there are that individual people can make a difference in the environment. We can show that environmental policy is not a zero sum game, where for the environment to win the economy and people must lose but in fact that with development and ingenuity environmental policy can be a positive sum game where investment in the environment can improve the lives of people and return economic stability.

I believe that farmers and the agricultural industry can lead the way positive sum development that show the positive potential of the environment and the economy. Changing the framework of the environmental debates and discussions we all have and impact our end decisions.


Cheap, Easy, and Fast Genotyping!

October 22, 2009

Many recent developments in the agricultural industry can be traced back to genetic development. From the improvement of corn hybrids to Holstein pedigrees, genetics are import to most cutting edge farmers. These advancements have been made using many different technologies from simple selection and breeding systems to genetic modification of a few key genes in corn and soybeans.  A recent technological advance has made a huge impact on the field of genetic analysis of crops and livestock, it has taken an expensive complicated and timely analysis of a genome and made it simple, fast and inexpensive. This advancement is the genetic SNP Chip or snip chip, although the more accurate name is a micro array. This is simply a glass or silicone chip with 100’s of thousands of small dots of DNA distributed over its surface. These dots are made up of short sections of DNA selected from key regions of the genome or spaced equally throughout the genome.  When the gene chip is used to analyse a sample the sample is treated with enzymes that cut the genome into short pieces, and some sort of traced that makes it glow. This mixture of millions of tiny pieces of DNA is flushed over the chip and any pieces that match those on the chip bond with them and stick in place. the rest are washed off leaving those that have bonded behind. Then the chip is scanned to record which dots are glowing. This shows which pieces of DNA that are present on the chip are present in the sample.

This technology has been produced in two forms in the livestock industry. Their is a Bovine chip that has 54,000 different unique sections of the bovine genome,  selected from studies on the most important and variable sections of the bovine genome.  This chip is capable of distinguishing the differences between any breed of cow as well as any other ruminant including giraffes, and has even been used on bones of an ancient extinct bison found in china. Thats why they have developed a second chip that only looks at 384 places on the genome and only looks at those of greatest importance to the cattle industry. The most amazing part of these chips is their cost, averaging around $250 for the 54,000 bit chip and only $40-50 for the 384 bit chip.  This has made the technology accessible to a large number of researchers, private companies, breed associations and even individual farmers.

Bovine SNP Chip

This ability to gather genetic data on large numbers of cattle for relatively cheap has the possibility of completely changing the breeding selection process for many farmers. This allows farmers to take into account the entire genetic background of a sire rather then a few key traits analyzed by pedigree or offspring. This also means that decisions are made according to the characteristics of the sire itself not an assumption of the genes it may or may not have received from its ancestors.  This is the most obvious use of the technology, for the selection of genetics within elite herds of beef and dairy cattle. I think that there is the possibility of even more interesting and useful uses of this technology in other farm sectors. The use of this technology in rare breeds could allow for animals to be screened for in breeding to avoid genetic defects in limited gene pools, as well as to simply improve these limited gene pools to produce more productive animals that may be useful for incorporation into commercial production. This would also be useful in other niche industries such as raising beefalo, a cross of buffalo and beef breeds.   This could help in that any similar genetic traits between the two species could be selected through this system, as well as any negative traits that may not be avoidable vis traditional means due to the limited background knowledge available on the buffalo. It is these niche industries that I believe could benefit most from the adoption of this new technology.


Growth vs Development

October 13, 2009

I just read a story about Guy Laliberté, Canada’s first space tourist,  and the $35 million he spent on a trip to the international space station. There has been lots of debate over his meaning behind the trip. He used it as an opportunity to draw attention to his charity that focuses on water issues around the world. This has drawn many people to say that he should have just donated the $35 million to the charity and that would have been more useful. This latest article I read was a blog post by Don Pittis an economic writer.  His major thesis of the post was about the fact that some people discount the achievements Guy has made as simply a clown and that there are many different ways of making money and changing the world. Eventually he went on to talk about the difference between the economic growth that someone like Guy and his Cirque du Soleil provide in the country and the economic growth provided by extracting oil from the tar sands.  He continued to speak on good growth versus bad growth, and many comments discussed the same ideas.

What does all this have to do with agriculture? Well farmers know and us as agriculture students know that not all growth is good growth, that growth is nothing without development. If a corn plant grows and grows with out developing and never develops it never sets a cob and at the end of the year we are left with no grain to harvest. This distinction between growth and development is common in agriculture, but seems to have lost from economics. I see a lot of parallels between the comments on these economic conditions and the types of discussions we have in our classes about true productivity on the farm.  We know that pouring tons of nitrogen on our fields can only do so much and that much of it is lost and not used effectively, but when it comes to economics people don’t see the simple parallels, but are lost in the details. Comparing economic stimulus like the bank and auto bailouts in the US to pouring synthetic fertilizers and herbicides on our fields, might not make sense to some but I think farmers understand.

This makes me feel even more driven to continue in agriculture for the perspective it gives me on the rest of the world and the interactions I see before me everyday as metaphors for the more complex decisions I have to make on a daily basis about how to spend my money and live y life.  I think farmers connection to the land, the environment and biology on a daily basis puts them in a unique position. A position from where they can see the world in a different light, where they can distinguish between simple growth and true development and help to lead our entire society towards a better tomorrow.

The Dyeing Days of Organic Turkeys?

October 13, 2009

This Saturday the Toronto star ran a story entitled Turkey Wars about the contrasting requirements of the Turkey Farmers of Ontario and the Canadian Organic Standards. The story paints a picture of a agricultural industry at odds with organic farmers,  requiring farmers to adhere to two incompatible standards at the same time. The standards in discussion have to do with housing of organic turkeys. The organic standards require that turkeys have access to pasture at all times, and the Turkey Farmers of Ontario just passed a bylaw saying that in order to hold turkey quota all turkeys must be housed under a solid roof at all times. This means that there is no way that farmers cannot both be certified organic and hold quota.  This is where the controversy begins, should organic turkeys be exempt from the housing requirements of the marketing board?

Each side of the argument has there own well thought out reasons behind their standards.  To start commercially raised turkeys are raised indoors to provide a consistent environment and temperature. These areas are meant to be bio-secure in order to reduce the transfer of disease and pests between barns as well as to limit interaction with the exterior environment. This new requirement was established mainly to deal with avian influenza which is carried by wild birds and transfered to domestic birds.  On the other hand the organic standards are also well thought out and developed. They require birds to be outside in order to provide them with the most natural and stress free environment possible. Their requirements of more space per bird, more natural foods and more freedom improve the health of the birds. These goals cannot be accomplished with birds indoors 24 hours a day. This means that neither side is wrong and are both acting to protect the quality of their respective industries, so who should be required to change?

My first instinct after reading this article was that a few organic farms producing turkeys outside couldn’t be a major issue and that the marketing board should make an allowance for certified organic turkeys. This was based on my assumptions that the fact that most organic farms raise rare heritage breeds of turkeys and generally have very healthy birds. This should protect their flocks from the impacts of avian influenza and therefore they should not increase the likely hood of any other turkey farms of getting the disease. This is also the stance that the article takes, unfortunately their is no scientific documentation to back up that claim and no reason to say that these rare breeds are more immune as currently the flu is being cared by wild birds not large populations of domestic poultry.  This lead me to think deeper on the issue and come up with a slightly different opinion on the topic.

The Toronto Star article sites that the ruling of the Turkey Farmers of Ontario effected only 2 organic turkey farms in the province.  These two organic turkey farms are now being told that in order to continue to be able to produce organically certified turkeys they will  loose their quota, which means they will only be able to produce a backyard flock of 50 turkeys. This means that they will not be able to produce large numbers that can be processed by a large packing plant and delivered to grocery stores across the province.   It seems to me that these two farms are trying to get their fingers into two pies at the same time, they are trying to cash in on the organic craze in supper markets and mass produce turkeys at the same time to make more money. In order to be more completely organic the farms should be working on direct marketing their turkeys, for which they would have difficulty selling many more then 50  turkeys. Perhaps they should be working to have the backyard flock allowance increased from 50 to 250 or so. This is what was done with chickens in 2008, when it was increased from 102 birds to 300 birds . This would allow them to produce a reasonably large number of turkeys to true organic standards and sell them directly to local customers.

This conclusion is definitely not included in the Star article, in fact the article leaves the industry as the bad guy and the lonely organic farmer as a hypothetical David versus the industries Goliath. This is echoed in the responses on the website, the majority of which are clearly one sided and have almost nothing to do with agriculture but more to do with economics and politics. All in all I don’t think it’s the end of the road for organic turkeys, but maybe it is for cheap organic turkeys available at the big chain grocery stores, and maybe that’s not a bad thing.