Sustainability starts in the microbiome

Part 1: Cows and climate change
When Canada’s beef industry says its priority objective is to be sustainable, what does that mean, specifically?

The answer isn’t a simple as you might think. A comprehensive definition should include animal health, eating quality, the impact of production on the environment and the ecosystem services returned to Canadians, stewardship of the land, and the circular economy that includes the ability of cattle to use byproducts as feed and the production of energy from manure.

“The short answer,” says Tim McAllister, Principal Research Scientist for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada in Lethbridge, Alberta, “is that we have to take a systems approach to sustainability.”

McAllister’s research focuses on cow microbiology, nutrition and biology, and how their influence on sustainability depends on their interaction with the rest of the cow. This isn’t simple, either. Interaction could refer to the microbiome of the respiratory tract and the cow’s likelihood of developing pneumonia that needs treatment with antibiotics. Or it could be the microbiome of the digestive tract and the cow’s resulting feed efficiency and methane production, the likelihood of digestive disturbances, or the influence the microbiome has on establishing human pathogens within the cow’s digestive tract, which can even influence the amount of methane produced from biodigested manure.

McAllister is collaborating with Gentec researcher Leluo Guan on the two-way communication between these microbiomes and the cow.

“The microbiome is heavily controlled by the immune system and the metabolic end products that the microbes produce. Since proteins and vitamins play a key role in immune response, we’re looking at the nutritional elements of the cow’s diet, especially since, in feedlots, cows are fed byproduct feed, such as distillers’ grains, that would be a liability to the ethanol industry without a market for them as feed.”

The microbiome allows cattle to ferment forages, which results in methane as a byproduct. McAllister points out that the origin of this methane is different than that of methane that is used to heat our homes. Carbon in cow methane comes from the forages it has just eaten, and it has just been captured by the plant through photosynthesis. In most cases, this carbon was carbon dioxide in the atmosphere less than a year before capture.

“So carbon in methane from cattle originates from short-term carbon in the atmosphere as CO2, the season before the animal grazed the plant” he says. “That’s very different from the carbon from fossil fuels. That methane was deposited and stored millions of years ago. Most of it is ancient carbon.”

McAllister points out that cattle and other ruminants were producing methane long before the Industrial Revolution without any significant consequence for climate change. There were 30-60 million buffalo roaming North America’s Great Plains—all far less efficient as they consumed only forages, unlike the forage/grain system used to produce cattle today. Therefore, climate change is really a consequence of the release of ancient—not short term—carbon into the atmosphere. While the methane molecules from these two sources are the same, their origin is vastly different.

Another component is the native and tame grasslands that are managed by Canada’s cow-calf producers. These lands store vast amounts of carbon that would be released into the atmosphere if they were to be cultivated. Using these lands as pasture preserves the land and its biodiversity, with the added benefit of carbon storage.

“Consumers need to understand the nuances associated with beef production in Canada and the roll beef cows play in nutrient recycling,” says McAllister.

Indeed, one of the major issues of the day is food waste. The world actually produces more than enough food for its population but loses over half through poor storage and distribution before it even reaches consumers. In Canada, 30-50% of some foods can end up in composting facilities or landfills—this is after the fuel, fertilizer and transportation energy has been spent to produce it. Once it enters a landfill, there is a good chance it will produce methane during decomposition.

“If we could line up supply channels, food waste doesn’t have to be a net liability,” says McAllister. “Unlike poultry and pigs, which have defined nutritional requirements and a narrow profile for adjusting it, cows live in an outdoor environment and have to deal with a range of forages and feed types. The rumen microbiome is capable of breaking down many different types of toxins, making cattle the logical end user of food waste streams.”

On that note, we’re going to leave you with that cliff-hanger. Next month’s article will continue the story on McAllister’s vision for cutting food waste.

Innovation Collage from China

Gentec’s former Director of Knowledge Translation, Dawn Trautman, spent 12 days in China at the beginning of May, marvelling at its contradictions and potential with her MBA program group.

She walked us through her photo album and shared her insights on this global powerhouse.

Hanergy
Hanergy is one of the largest solar manufacturers in the world, specializing in thin film and thin-film solar cell research. It has R&D centres in Beijing, Sichuan, Silicon Valley of the US, and Uppsala, Sweden.

“The technology is getting better,” says Dawn. “Hanergy is proud of the 17-18% efficiency of its solar panel glass windows. The opacity is gone. Now you just see a bit of a wave.”

“The demonstration products in the showrooms got more and more impressive as we progressed. Anything you can think of to put a solar panel on—they’ve done it. Umbrellas… Coffee shop tables… Sidewalks… Drones… Anything. You didn’t know you needed this power until you have it there. The bike has a solar panel in the basket that powers the payment system for a bike-share program. Panels on the back of a jacket power heating elements. It’s all ingenious.”


Hanergy has applied for almost 1,000 patents in new energy, of which 60% are invention patents (including core patents from the acquired overseas companies). It has also been the chief developer or involved in the development of over 10 national and industry standards on solar energy.

“Very impressive solar cars,” says Dawn. “Flashy—but not available for purchase yet.”

Belt and Road Initiative

The former home of Dr. Li Ruohong, President of China World Peace Foundation (CWPF) and Beijing International Peace Culture Foundation (BJIPCF) converted into a ‘museum’ and hosting residence for delegations. Dr. Ruohong is involved in the Belt and Road Initiative; an ambitious endeavour for linking China with neighbouring and distant regions, physically and with policy and trade coordination. It will put China at the centre of international trade with the end result to ‘open up the world’ to globalization and international cooperation.

In 2018, Gentec CEO Graham Plastow attended a conference on the Belt and Road Initiative on behalf of UAlberta. Gentec’s linkages with the China Agricultural University, Zheijiang University, Huazhong Agricultural University and others as well as exchanges of personnel have contributed to vibrant relationships for the benefit of science and the two countries. Notably, former Gentec professor Zhiquan Wang is now helping the Guangxi Yangxiang Co Ltd develop its pig genetics program, including using new technologies such as facial recognition.

As well, UAlberta itself has facilitated linkages with China, notably when Dr. Lap-Chee Tsui, President and Vice-chancellor of the University of Hong Kong, visited the University in March 2015 for roundtable event called International Collaborations with Scientists and Educators in China. Another more recent event was the latest Canada China meeting regarding Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) Collaboration Projects through Global Affairs Canada, which may include a project on beef with Gentec.

“What struck me was that there’s not much influence from the Americas,” continues Dawn. “We have this centralized view of North America but on the global scale, it’s a bit worrying that we seem to be an afterthought. We really need to address how Canada can play a bigger role, especially since we’re Pacific neighbours. Our professor said that another possibility of partnerships with China would be to gain access or facilitate partnerships to other countries.”

Hangzhou. Mall near Alibaba HQ

Panels like this one record the gender and age of shoppers, how many parking spots are free, etc. so shoppers can decide when to go to avoid the crowds. It also directs heating and cooling from the recorded hotspots.

“This was a bit spooky,” says Dawn. “We couldn’t figure out how they know the age and gender! Maybe through the messaging-social media-mobile payment app, WeChat. And there are cameras everywhere, so as a tourist you feel really safe.”

Shanghai Zhangjiang HiTech Park
This park acts as an incubator for tech companies as well as an accelerator and free-trade zone. Companies there make a video game for hand-and-arm rehab that is being sold in Germany, and other health-related products.

Shanghai Starbucks Reserve Roastery

At 30,000 square feet, this was the largest in the world until a one opened in Tokyo. At $6-7/mug, Starbucks is expensive in China, more of a status symbol.

Contrast and contradiction

“You see what I mean about contradictions?” asks Dawn, speaking of these images. “Shanghai is like any international city. There’s even a French concession area. It didn’t always feel like China, whereas Beijing and the other cities did. China will host the Winter Olympics in 2022 so I think they will reuse the Bird’s Nest.”

“We should be more aware of their development,” she says. “It felt like the future is here, and we’re playing catch up. Obviously, there are still problems, like pollution, but there are trees and tree farms everywhere so they are concerned with the environment. Is it a distraction? Some of the more interesting things in societies are their contradictions. China is both modern and respectful of its traditions, and it seemed there was often structure and chaos at the same time.”

Is there a “beef” with Canada’s new Food Guide?

The 2019 update of Canada’s Food Guide has been out for about a month. In that time, it has been both praised as better reflecting today’s lifestyles and sustainability issues, and reviled as insufficiently reflecting Canada’s demographic diversity.

“Certainly, the new Food Guide has some great concepts,” says Tom Lynch-Staunton, Alberta Beef Producers’ Government Relations and Policy Manager. “The proportions of fruit and veg versus protein and grains… absolutely, that’s appropriate.”

Where the livestock sector differs is that the Guide over-emphasizes plant-based protein—on a plate that’s already three-quarters full of plant-based items.

“We think that could be misguided,” says Tom. “Plant proteins don’t have the same nutritional profile as animal protein. Meat contains all the essential amino acids; plants don’t. Vitamin B12 only comes from animal protein, unless supplemented in other foods. And iron from red meat is much more bioavailable than plant-based iron.”

The beef sector is concerned that animal protein and plant protein are made to look equal. However, certain demographics (children, seniors, pregnant women, athletes, etc.) need extra nutrients that they may be substituting out with plant protein without realizing that they may be inviting deficiencies. Milk is an obvious example.

“If you give your children soy milk instead of cow’s milk, thinking it is the same, they probably won’t grow the same way,” says Tom. “You have to compare the nutrient profile! That’s the missing piece.”

Tom would have preferred the Guide to recognize that milk, meat and eggs are highly nutritious but that if people don’t want to eat them… here (the missing piece, perhaps advice from a dietician) is how to get equivalent nutrition that meets their needs from alternatives. You can’t just tell people to replace meat with lentils and be done with it.”

Alberta Beef Producers isn’t really worried that Canadians will switch to tofu by the thousands and drive it out of business. True, Canadians are eating less beef, but the developing world is increasing its consumption as the quality of life in those countries improves.

Instead, it is positioning beef consumption as a complement to other foods in smaller amounts. A 180-degree shift from the more familiar steak. That might mean adding a few slices of beef to a salad high in Vitamin C to better absorb the iron from the beef, which can increase the bioavailability of the iron from the spinach as well. Alberta Beef Producers is also positioning beef as a nutrient-dense food to those demographics who need the extra nutrients, and trying to reconnect consumers back to where beef comes from… how it’s grown and the environmental benefits of raising livestock, especially on land that is not suitable to grow crops. There are lots of misconceptions out there.

“Of course, we want people to eat beef and drink milk,” says Tom. “There’s an economic value that infers bias. And, of course, we wanted to be consulted on the Guide but Health Canada was trying to keep bias out of the mix. Bottom line? That’s irrelevant. What IS relevant is how the Guide improves the health of Canadians. So the question is: how much (nutritious) meat can you eat to complement other items on the plate. That’s the balance we’d like to see.”

Food Risks and GM food

Ellen Goddard

Recently, (November 2018), the PEW Research Centre produced a report (Public Perspectives on Food Risks), which identified gender differences in public perspectives. We were curious about that aspect of our own research so we went back to a national survey[1] conducted in January 2017 and had a look. In fact, there are statistically significant differences in the public perceptions of a number of food risks in Canada that are very similar to the ones identified by the PEW Research Centre. Here are some examples of different perceived food risks by sex in Canada.

We asked consumers: “How do you rate the health risks for consumers of regular consumption of (1) foods with pesticides or other chemical residues; and (2) Genetically Modified Food? (see headers in the following charts)”

 

The differences in responses between males and females is statistically different in each case. This is particularly interesting given that females still do predominantly more household food shopping than males.

The PEW research showed that people who were more knowledgeable about science were less likely to oppose GM foods. That, too, was something we investigated in our 2017 national survey of 1,800 Canadians. In that survey, we asked people to self-assess their knowledge of science and technology on a scale from 1 (know very little) to 10 (know a lot). The frequency of responses at each level of the scale and the average perceived human-health risk of GM foods for each group of respondents are shown in the following figure. There is a clear negative relationship between self-assessed science and technology knowledge and perceived risk of GM foods.

Given that the second rationale for concern about GM foods often concerns unexpected environmental externalities, we also looked at self-assessed knowledge of environmental problems (again, on a 1 to 10 scale) and perceived GM-food risks by groups.

Although the trend is somewhat less clear than for knowledge of science and technology, there is clearly a negative trend for the higher self-assessed knowledge of environmental problem scores from 6 through 10. So, as with the PEW research, higher knowledge of science and of the environment (which do not appear to be perfectly correlated) suggests more acceptance of GM foods, indicating perhaps a better understanding of inherent trade-offs with higher knowledge.

A number of other studies have suggested that there might be issues of fairness in markets and sectors that influence people’s assessments of the risks of GM foods (see here and here). In our research, we assessed a number of different aspects of fairness including the fairness of producer and consumer prices. To illustrate the concept of fairness and perceptions of GM food risks to human health, below are the answers to: ‘When it comes to new technologies in agriculture, it is fair to spend my tax dollars on developing these technologies. ’ We used a scale of 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree).

Again, there is a clear downward trend in the perception of GM food risks to human health with stronger agreement that taxes should be spent on the development of these new technologies in agriculture.

Why is any of this important in the continuing debate on GM foods, particularly in the context of moving forward with new genetic technologies, such as gene editing and gene drives? First of all, some of the same arguments that discouraged the adoption of GM technologies are beginning to rise in the context of the newer genetic technologies. Second, perhaps it is becoming much clearer what the role of science education (particularly from elementary school through high school) may be in encouraging understanding of the trade-offs between acceptance of newer genetic technologies and serious global food production and climate change issues.

Interest in science and technology is likely developed at an early age and, without that interest and follow-up throughout their lives, results suggest that people are more likely to oppose the use of genetic technologies in the food space (although they likely all own and use smart phones). Food is different, and raises a host of different concerns than do some other technologies in our daily lives. As demonstrated in another of our studies, cultivating an interest in science and technology across the population may reduce the perceptions of the human-health risks of GM foods (and likely of the outcomes of other genetic technology approaches).

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[1] This survey was conducted in order to better understand the public’s interests in science, technology and animal agriculture as well as willingness to purchase different meat products.

 

One step in understanding Canada’s iconic wood bison

There are plains bison and wood bison. Can you tell the difference?

Delta Genomics is developing a test that will tell whether bison are wood, plains or hybrid. The difference is important to conservation and production efforts.

Wood bison are part of Canada’s iconic charismatic megafauna, along with polar bears, caribou, moose and others. With only about 10,000 of them remaining (based on visual inspection of wild herds), the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada has listed the species as having Special Concern. Plains bison, on the other hand, are quite plentiful. If you can’t tell the difference in these images, you’re not alone. So how do we know which to preserve?

“The CanSeq150 project is a science gift to Canada for our country’s 150th birthday last year,” says Delta Genomics CEO, Michelle Miller. “Basically, Canada’s Genomics Enterprise is sequencing 150 new genomes of animal or plant species that have significant scientific, cultural, societal or economic impact to Canada.”

CanSeq150’s goal is for the new genomes to serve as a foundation for biological research projects throughout the country. This initiative brought the beaver genome to Canada’s 150th birthday party, and has since sequenced the Canadian predator-prey duo, the snowshoe hare and lynx in 2017. The project still has an active call out for suggested species.

“We wanted to get the wood bison sequences for a few reasons,” says Michelle. “As part of an on-going project between Delta and the Canadian Bison Association, we are working to better understand the genetics of bison.”

Back in the 1920s, 6,000 plains bison were introduced into Wood Buffalo National Park in Northern Alberta, home to some of the last free-roaming wood bison herds. Yes, the bison interbred. No, there’s no good test to determine if an animal is wood, plains or hybrid. There’s even some debate as to whether they are genetically different. This is one of the questions Delta Genomics is hoping to answer. And for that, it needs lots of bison to sequence. The CanSeq150 project arrived at the perfect time.

The Canadian Bison Association has a two-pronged, synergistic mandate: conservation and production. The project with Delta involves developing the first genomics tools for the industry, which is something it doesn’t have access to yet. Genomics will benefit bison producers and conservationists by improving our ability to differentiate between wood and plains bison. There are three issues to address/answer:

  1. SNP parentage. The only parentage test using SNPs is US-based, which means mailing in samples to the States and paying in US dollars. Many producers don’t bother.
  2. Genetic difference. Is it possible to differentiate the percentage of wood and plains bison in an individual animal?
  3. How much cattle DNA is in an individual animal. Most bison have very little but current measurement methods aren’t very accurate.

“So we’d know how many pure wood bison there really are, from the conservation point of view,” says Michelle. “And on the production side, the knowledge will help producers in the same way that beef breeders maintain parental lines of Angus, Simmental, etc. Bison breeders are the same way. So producers need to know that, as well.”

But back to our original question. At Gentec, we’re not the type to leave you dangling. Here are the answers you’re looking for.

Demonstration Days are here again

2017 was a year of exciting firsts for Gentec and Delta Genomics.

In February, we launched the first genomics application for the commercial cow-calf sector discovered and commercialized within Alberta. The collaboration between the Grey Wooded Forage Association (GWFA) and Gentec as part of the Cow-Forage Gentec Tour demonstration event was our first involvement with a forage association, making the GWFA the first to deliver this information to its members. Last August’s event was one of our most highly rated demonstration events, with particular positive comments on the forage component for cow-calf producers and on the impact of Alberta Agriculture and Forestry (and Gentec collaborator) John Basarab’s presentation on genomics tools for commercial cow-calf producers.

Building on this success, Gentec and the Foothills Forage and Grazing Association (FFGA) in Southern Alberta are hosting two Forage to Beef Field-Demonstration Days in 2018: July 10 at the Waldron Ranch Grazing Cooperative (near Longview, AB), and July 11 co-located between Difficulty Ranch and at Whiskey Ridge Cattle Company (both near Didsbury, AB).

As in 2017, the overarching theme is sustainable beef production and the interaction of cows, forages and genomics in the optimal development and management of the cow-herd.

At the Waldron Ranch Grazing Cooperative on July 10, Mike Roberts, Ranch Manager, will compare plots that have never been grazed, continually grazed, and intermittently grazed. Here, presenters will discuss forage species, performance indicators, the production and environmental benefits (with yearling cattle on-site), the impacts of managing hybrid vigour within the cow herd as well as progress in developing genomic indexes for the commercial producer. There will also be a demonstration of how drones can be used in ranch management.

The second event, hosted jointly by Morrie and Debbie Goetjen (Whiskey Ridge Cattle Co.) and Sean and Holly LaBrie (Difficulty Ranch) will reflect the ecological and production techniques based on their local environmental conditions. They will showcase forage topics such as the cell, swath and bale-grazing techniques they use on-ranch, display their cow herd and discuss their beef production philosophy. The hybrid vigour and drone demonstrations from the previous day will be presented.

Both days will also see two prominent UofA Gentec collaborators presenting on the practical progress being made in forage production. Edward Bork, Director of UofA’s Rangeland Research Institute and Mattheis Chair in Rangeland Ecology and Management will use the forage plots on-hand to discuss the importance and methods of maintaining the long-term economic and environmental sustainability of rangelands at the producer level.
https://rri.ualberta.ca

Barry Irving has been coaxed out of a retirement lasting approximately 21 days) will talk about how management and research on both the forage and beef side has impacted production practices over the course of his career. Barry is the former manager of UofA’s Agricultural Research Stations that includes the Mattheis and Roy Berg Kinsella Research Ranches. Each station is home to distinct forage environments and active cattle herds.

More information and registration information available at https://livestockgentec.ualberta.ca and https://www.foothillsforage.com.

Local Boy Does Good…

This month’s featured video pays tribute to Gentec personality Dr. John Crowley as he advances another level in his rapidly evolving career. Some of our readers will know that as of July 1, John will be joining AbacusBio in its head office in Dunedin, New Zealand, for three months before settling into its international office in Edinburgh, Scotland.

John came to Gentec in 2011 from the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation, where he had been working as part of the genetic evaluation team.

Coming from a dairy and beef background and going on to be classically trained PhD in Quantitative Genetics, John was able to focus on the fact that the goal was always to help the science help the producer manage their operation and achieve production efficiencies. While always working as part of the Gentec / University of Alberta academic team, this drew John back to work with industry, initially as an Industry R&D Associate with Beefbooster from 2012 to 2014 (supported by Alberta Innovates), and in a similar position with the Canadian Beef Breeds Council immediately after that.

The video, filmed at Gentec’s 2018 One Genome One Health conference, provides an update on the Genome Alberta and Alberta Agriculture and Forestry project on “Development and deployment of MBVs/gEPDs for feed efficiency and carcass traits that perform in commercial beef cattle.” It shows John doing what he says he enjoys most about his roles in “helping to bridge the gaps between the academic role in discovery and innovation with that of facilitating the uptake and application of these new technologies by producers and industry … the interface of progress.”

In this presentation, John talks about the efforts to bring to the producer genomics tools and selection indexes that focus on traits of economic importance: feed efficiency and carcass traits such as carcass weight, marbling grade and lean yield.

One area where Gentec does “particularly well” (John’s words!) is in partnering with user groups who can benefit from the technology being developed. Here, that means working with Troy Drake of Cow Calf Health Management Solutions and 13 Alberta-based producers to provide genetic evaluations for commercial producers, increase the genetic merit of the cow herd by increasing the accuracy of genomics prediction tools and by delivering genomics breed composition to producers. This latter ability is demonstrating particular value as it allows commercial (crossbred) producers to optimize the value of hybrid vigour within their herd while taking advantage of breed complementarity (the fact that the different breeds have different strengths).

Valuable advances to be sure—but the science does not stop here … The next frontier involves gEPDs and selection indexes for maternal traits.

We wish John success in the next step in his career with one of Gentec’s partner organizations.

Bye-bye, brown apples…

As of November 2017, select stores in the US are selling an apple variety called Arctic® Golden. It’s the same as the Golden we’ve known and eaten for decades, only this one doesn’t go brown—at all, ever—after it’s bitten into, sliced or even bruised. (Browning from rot is a different process entirely.)

All because of one enzyme called polyphenol oxidase (PPO). In a normal apple that’s been cut or bitten into, PPO reacts with the oxygen in the air, leaving a brown stain. The same thing happens to avocados, bananas, pears, etc. Until now, we’ve been coating fruit in lemon juice to stop them browning. Lemons are full of ascorbic acid, which reacts with oxygen before the PPO can. But it’s only temporary. Once the ascorbic acid is used up, the PPO takes over and the fruit starts to go brown.

“So we turned off the PPO gene to stop the browning process altogether,” says Neal Carter, President, Okanagan Specialty Fruits. “Using RNA interference, which is a naturally occurring pathway often used in agricultural biotechnology, we introduced apple genes that produce less PPO into apple leaf tissue. Then we grew that tissue into plantlets, and grafted them onto rootstock to grow just like conventional apple trees.”

Sounds easy but, between perfecting the science and obtaining FDA, USDA, Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Health Canada approvals, 20 years whizzed by. In that time, however, the company has demonstrated that Arctic® trees behave just like any other apple tree under the same conditions, and that the fruit are just as nutritious as regular apples.

Watch a time-lapse video comparing the browning of Arctic® Golden to regular apples.

What everybody is waiting for now is… consumer reaction. Will they like them? Will they buy them? And perhaps, more to the point—as the first such apple to hit supermarket shelves—will Arctic® apples get mired in a similar controversy as, say, Golden Rice?

It’s a fair question. Golden rice was genetically designed to remedy Vitamin A deficiencies in parts of the world where rice is a prominent part of people’s diet. In spite of that lofty goal and winning a 2015 Patents for Humanity Award, it is viewed either as a panacea or a poison (no grey area here!), and distribution remains severely limited.

Arctic® apples, on the other hand, were designed with consumers in mind. Company research shows that taste testers rank these apples higher in texture, crispness and visual appeal; 92 percent of apple lovers would buy them; and 67 percent of consumers prefer preservative-free apple slices—which, of course, these are.

“Per capita apple consumption in the US has declined or remained stagnant for more than 20 years,” points out Carter. “Just as ‘baby’ carrots helped double US carrot consumption and are now the majority of US carrot sales, we believe that Arctic® apples can help more people eat more apples.”

Could it be that Arctic® apples have found the “sweet spot” between a good-looking, healthy, tasty snack that people crave and… junk food? Quite possibly.

At first blush, these apples appear to be winners all around. Carter got into genetics because, as an apple grower, he was appalled at the waste from bruising during harvesting and packing. That can now be greatly reduced. Not to mention the 19 percent of apples wasted at the supermarket from bruising, so profit to be gained there, too. And consumers are less likely to throw away perfect-looking apple slices, even if they have been in the fridge a while.

“Humans have been selecting for traits in food plants and animals to meet their needs for thousands of years,” says Neal. “Today, we do it more precisely using technology. The nutritional content of the Arctic® apple is the same as that of a regular apple. What does change is that, with a growing global population, we can derive more benefit from what we produce by wasting less. That’s a good thing.”

While the 2017 crop of Arctic® Goldens is a drop in the bucket, the production (and therefore, availability) will increase exponentially in coming years. As well, the Arctic® Fuji received USDA approval in fall 2016, so that will come into production soon; and additional tree fruit varieties are in the pipeline. That’s a good thing, too.

 

*Image courtesy of Okanagan Specialty Fruits Inc.

Agricultural Myths and Facts

So says McGill University’s Science and Society’s Director Joe Schwarcz. Actually, it’s the Quacks who are coming home to roost as a result of the erosion in the quality of scientific education and literacy among the general public. 

In his presentation at Gentec’s One Genome One Health conference, Dr. Joe (as he is known informally) used his talk on Agricultural Facts and Myths to highlight how the scientific method of hypothesis, observation, logic and conclusion is, in many instances, being overpowered by hearsay, emotion and the Quacks pushing pseudoscience. 

If the public is to be truly informed, it must be encouraged and empowered to see through the misleading tactics (camouflage? – Joe’s word) employed by the “hucksters.” Part of this requires overcoming today’s chemical phobia and realizing that “nature” and “natural” are not necessarily benign; bacteria, viruses and storms are all naturally occurring, and the majority of the most powerful toxins (as well as medications) are produced in nature—and are often one in the same. “Naturally” occurring botulinum, for example, is the most acutely lethal toxin known yet is used as both a medication and a cosmetic. It is the dose that makes the medicine.

Some of Dr. Joe’s other insights and implications discussed in the short video that make you go “Hmmm” include:

Hazard and Risk. They aren’t the same thing, but do we know the difference?

Current technology allows us to detect the presence of parts per trillion (equivalent to the ability to detect 1 second within a 32,000 year period). Does this help or hinder our ability to make good decisions?

There are more trace amounts of naturally occurring acetone and formaldehyde in an apple than the pesticide residue many people lose sleep over. Should I really eat that apple?

Natural… Organic… Conventional – Who cares?  And do they really mean what we think they do?

The near-perfect correlation between autism and organic food sales. We are probably better off being vaccinated than eating organic food. Who knew?

Well-informed decisions need to be made on the basis of peer-reviewed scientific evidence. Being empowered to see through the fog that is deception is the best defence.

Thanks, Dr. Joe!

Q&As with Mike Lohuis

What was your role as Director, Environmental Strategy for Agriculture at Monsanto about?

“That role involved research regarding what impact agriculture has on the environment. I was focusing specifically on climate change. For example… What has happened, how it is affecting agriculture, and how agriculture could help mitigate climate change.”

Why would a seed company need somebody to do this?

“Agriculture is the second largest source of emissions on the planet after power generation. Even though GHG-emitting agricultural practices are individually not that significant, they become so simply because agriculture occupies such a wide surface area of our land mass. For example, fertilizers aren’t applied in huge amounts, but they contain compounds such as nitrous oxide, which has 300 times the global-warming potential of carbon dioxide. And methane has 25 times the warming potential.

My team and I were trying to understand the problem and solutions. We worked with a variety of academic and public groups to understand the modelling behind GHG emissions. This included getting information from Gentec on feed efficiency and its potential to mitigate this problem.It was really interesting to discover where emissions come from and which ones we can do something about.”

What attracted you to the role?

“I’ve always been interested in sustainability and modelling (I’m a closet geek!). I wanted to know how we could prepare for climate change and how we could mitigate it.

Farmers are enthusiastic about faming and being part of the solution. They do a great job of feeding the planet—but wouldn’t it be nice if they could help save it, too? The thing is, when they hear talk about climate change and mitigation strategies, they immediately think of implications for their business, such as a heavier tax burden. So if you ask them if they believe in climate change, they might say ‘No,’ not because they’re climate-change deniers but because they’re more afraid of the proposed solutions than of the problem.”

What came out of that work?

“We found that tillage and fertilizers were sources of GHGs that could be mitigated. No-till agriculture and cover crops are great examples of how to reduce emissions and the need for fertilizers, build carbon in the soil and preserve the topsoil at the same time. We had a model that predicted that you could get to carbon-neutral from a cropping standpoint. So if you did it right, you could offset all your emissions from use of fuel and fertilizer by building the carbon back into the soil. Sequestration and storage in the soil are a great counterbalance to activities on the land.”

That’s great! Does the model work everywhere?

“Well, it could be used in different climates but it’s easier in temperate zones. In tropical climates, it’s so much harder to build carbon because it breaks down under lots of rain, heat and sun. Plus, weeds grow faster and herbicides are less available, so more tillage is needed. That said, rainforests do a great job of storing carbon but in the canopy, not necessarily in the soil. In the Northern Hemisphere, we can do a lot more in terms of reducing emissions in agriculture.”

What did you learn from talking to consumers?

“At Monsanto, we were acutely aware of criticisms and what we could have done to right the story. Unfortunately, we can’t turn the clock back, and it’s hard to counter some of the bad press.

There are plenty of lessons we can learn from the past. We know that food is an emotional issue, and when a topic is emotional, scientific arguments don’t hold much sway. We also know that trust is paramount. How do you establish and keep trust with consumers? The number one factor associated with trust is transparency.”

How do you build trust?

“As scientists, we tend to understate the risks and overstate the benefits because we like shiny new technologies. So two things can help clarify the situation: 1) Transparency about risk versus reward and 2) Good story tellers who can effectively speak to a broad audience about the issues. What we don’t want is a situation where consumers want more information, but all they see are images of buildings, machinery and technology. The best story-tellers are farmers and producers because they’re doing the job every day. They are the genuine voice.

Some consumers are critical of agribusiness. They believe the only thing industry is interested in is making money. Of course, in the short term, that’s correct. But industry wants to make money in the long term as well. So agribusiness is constantly evaluating risks and liabilities, but shouldn’t expect to fly under the radar when it comes to new technology. We have to get out there, and talk about what we’re doing. The science can’t be left to speak for itself when emotion is at play.”

What role has the internet played in all this?

“Consumers used to get their information from credible sources like journalists, the news, experts or scientific journals. But now, everybody is an expert and can easily publish information. That doesn’t mean the information is vetted. Activists have found an effective tool in social media, and they tend to use the spaghetti principle (fling a credible-sounding meme against a wall and see if it sticks) to find out if an issue has legs.

An example is the story that circulated claiming GMO crops caused farmers to commit suicide. We thought that was ludicrous, but it stuck because farming in India has long had a problem with suicides that were often tied to bankruptcies. Yes, some farmers had invested in GMO seed, but without the financial safety net of crop insurance like in North American and Europe, they went bankrupt if crops failed. We even found that, often, the purported GMO seeds were counterfeit. It took so much effort to disprove that story, and it still lingers today like an urban myth.”

Stay tuned for Part 2 in next month’s newsletter!