Do you know where your food comes from? Parkland Fertilizers in Wetaskiwin is finding more and more people these days do not have ties to the agricultural world leading to a gap between producers and consumers.
In order to provide continuing education on what the agricultural industry offers, Parkland Fertilizers, in conjunction with the Wetaskiwin and District Heritage Museum, organized Ambassadors of Agriculture. The panel seminar provides industry professionals an opportunity speak to hot topics in the ag industry.
This year’s panel — who appeared at the Wetaskiwin and District Heritage Museum on Feb. 16 — included: Amanda Mitchell, a registered dietician; Robyn Gerrard, an agronomist with Parkland Fertilizers; Kendra Fisher, an Angus cattle producer and marketing and sales manager for 20/20 Seeds Lab Inc.; Dean Nelson, a fourth generation century farm crop farmer; Martin Kaiser; a mixed farm producer; and Ingrid de Geoij and Yvonne de Geoij, both dairy farmers on the family farm, Beevliet Ltd.
“Farmers are really resourceful and make their farms sustainable,” said Pamela Ganske, Parkland Fertilizers marketing director.
Panelists touched on a number of topics during the seminar, including genetically modified organisms (GMOs), organic versus non-organic farming, farming decisions and crop and livestock care, and hormones and antibiotics in food.
Throughout the seminar the panel agreed there are many misconceptions regarding GMO food, as well as misleading marketing tactics used by some companies.
“A lot of people who hear the word GMO think that’s a really bad food,” said Fisher.
“It’s just breeding … we’re not using chemicals,” she added.
Genetically modifying food can take place in a lab but Fisher says it often happens in nature as well, allowing the organisms with the most survivor traits to carry them on and ensure longevity and sustainability.
Fisher says there is a big education gap between marketing and reality. And while buzzwords can be used to create confusion and fear among consumers, she says GMO foods are important and essential to the sustainability of humans.
By the year 2050 the population of Earth is expected reach between 9 and 11 billion, and Fisher says there will be challenges feeding more people with less land. “We need 60 per cent more food produced than we produce today.”
Fisher mentioned golden rice that has been created in labs as a GMO.
In third world countries as many as 500,000 children under the age of five go blind annually due to a vitamin A deficiency, and 100,000 die each year because of the same issue.
Golden rice is rice infused with bio carotene and could combat the deficiency, says Fisher.
“Because of a lack of education and fear … We haven’t been able to produce it yet. That’s just one example. There are hundreds.,” said Fisher.
“It’s kind of a hot topic right now,” added Mitchell, referring to GMO foods.
She says there are many foods that really do not have non-GMO options for people. “I don’t really know of a lot of tomatoes that haven’t been modified.”
Fisher says another point is the difference between GMO versus organic, and organic versus non-organic foods. “Organic means no chemicals, GMO means genetically modified.”
Organic and non-organic foods
Kaiser, who farms both organically and conventionally says the input costs for both farming methods are roughly the same, “The money is just spent in different areas.”
Approximately six years ago Kaiser and his family began considering organic farming to see if they could increase the revenue per acre of their farm. Three years ago their first quarter section was certified and now Kaiser farms 1,200 acres organically.
“It’s a huge challenge,” said Kaiser. If weeds or crop diseases are found they cannot be treated conventionally.
“But there’s also pressures on those prices,” said Kaiser.
Over time he expects less yield than conventional farming and has to push to keep it sustainable. He feels in order to be on the forefront farmers cannot back down if it does not work at first, they must commit to it long term in order to create the solutions needed to make it sustainable.
“The yield, we hope to stay within 20 per cent to 30 per cent of conventional farming,” he added.
Gerrard adds just because crops are organically farmed does not mean there is no pesticide or herbicide use at all. “There are regulated pesticides and herbicides allowed. They just have to be labelled.”
Mitchell says whether the food is organic or non organic, if sold in Canada it has to meet standards and regulations.
“The nutrition is exactly the same. They’re all safe. Our bodies are able to metabolize and get rid of those additives,” said Mitchell.
With conventional production technology has advanced well beyond what forefathers of agriculture were using, and Kaiser says there are many resources available regarding crop rotation and production. “On the organic side it’s a whole different story,” said Kaiser.
More time has to be spent reading the soil and cultivating.
Crop and land care
“To decide what we do we usually take soil samples in the fall,” said Nelson. This allows him to see what nutrients the soil needs and fertilize from there.
Along with soil sampling, Nelson farms on a three year crop rotation with canola and barley, rotating in wheat and flax. Crops are rotated to avoid disease problems.
Nelson says some crops, such as peas and faba beans, add nutrients to the soil and can be rotated out the next year for another crop to use those nutrients, decreasing the need to fertilize them as much. “That’s exactly why we use soil sampling.”
Land maintenance to ensure sustainability and land quality for future generations is important, says Nelson.
Antibiotics and hormones
Antibiotics and hormones is another topic mainly marketed as a negative.
“Us as humans, we have natural hormones in our bodies. So do animals. There’s no such thing as hormone free meat,” said Mitchell.
“In Canada we do use antibiotics on the farm, there’s no denying that,” said Fisher. However, she adds most are the equivalent of what Tylenol and Advil are to humans.
Stronger antibiotics are used to treat infection and disease.
In Canada withdrawal dates are set from when an animal is treated with antibiotics and those animals cannot be sold or butchered for a set time period after the treatment. In dairy farms milk produced within a time frame after an animal is treated is taken out of production.
“We have regulations in place to ensure we’re eating the safest meat, the safest milk,” said Fisher.
“Food is politicized,” said Ingrid de Geoij.
Fisher says antibiotics given to livestock are not cheap and producers and vets must make the call if antibiotic treatment is the right option.
“We know if a cow is sick or if a calf is not feeling well. We know our animals,” said Yvonne de Geoij.
Rules and regulations are in place to ensure animal care, ranging from when they can be shipped to dehorning to castration.
Programs such as proAction ensure helps ensure animal care and quality on dairy operations. “ProAction is a good program, it will satisfy consumers,” said Ingrid de Geoij.
Fisher says the Verified Beef Program is similar, and tracks an animal’s life from bedding to food to stress levels. “It’s tracking your animals every day of their life until their butchered.”