Wheat &Chaff – for Oct. 3, 2011

FEEDING A HUNGRY WORLD

I ve just returned from a week in Ontario at the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists congress ( www.ifaj.org). More than 260 writers, broadcasters and the like from over 30 countries descended on southern Ontario to learn about new world agriculture. While a large portion of this congress is about farm tours and seeing how things are done differently in other countries, there s also a strong speakers, program. This year, the chorus was somewhat different, but each speaker was singing from the same song-book. The topic? Feeding a hungry, growing world population.

It s a popular topic, though, as one speaker pointed out, hardly a new one. Terry Daynard, former professor of crop science at the University of Guelph and former executive director of the Ontario Corn Producers Association, said he had these same discussions in the early 70s. It would seem not much has changed. I get the sense, from a North American perspective, that farmers are being told to get excited about all this new demand, that a growing population is going to mean growing profits for the farm. I m one of those who doesn t buy it. Shipping cheap grain to hungry countries has been done for decades, and still people are hungry in Africa and farmers in North America struggle to remain profitable when crop prices dip.

Many speakers spoke of how technology, new varieties and generally more production was a key factor in growing enough food. That may help boost supply, but the speakers who caught my attention were those who pointed out that there are nearly as many obese people in the world as there are who are hungry. We don t have a supply problem, we have a distribution problem.

I m no economist, and I m not old enough to remember the last time farmers went through this type of volatility in the face of famines overseas, but I m a rather realistic, practical person. In my mind, the largest part of the solution to feeding the hungry is to teach them to farm on their own land, to rebuild the soil and to protect the crops and the farmers from the very real dangers of others who want them to fail. I m certainly not alone in this line of thinking. Yes, new, more efficient varieties are important for North American farmers and African farmers alike. Biofortification is a good thing, too. But to say that billions of new mouths to feed will be a boon to Canadian farmers is just plain unrealistic.

Instead, the real opportunities for Canadian farmers exist in our own backyards and our high-value trading partners. Should we ignore famine-stricken areas? Absolutely not! But instead of shipping low-priced wheat and corn (that doesn t always make it to the destination), perhaps we should be shipping them people with expertise and funding to start growing crops where they re needed most.

THE SOLUTION IN THE SOIL

Dr. Jill Clapperton, a rhizosphere expert formerly of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and now with Rhizoterra ( www.rhizoterra.com), is my new hero. It s no secret I have a fascination with soil, its management and its importance. Clapperton stood up in front of all of us journalists at IFAJ, directly after those who were saying we need to produce more and told them flat out that without first focusing on soil, all the new technology in the world couldn t achieve these goals.

Biofortification, that is breeding varieties of say, lentils, to contain a higher portion of certain nutrients, will only work if the nutrients are available in the soil for the plant to draw from. Are they?

Often, and who isn t guilty of this, we think of feeding the crop for high yields. How many of you think of feeding the soil? This is Clapperton s first focus. Soil chemistry and physical properties are well understood; we re just starting to grasp the importance and makeup and interaction of the soil fungi, bacteria and other microorganisms. As last month s issue ofGrainewspointed out, a healthy soil is a productive soil, but just what is a healthy soil? Can we encourage or even add in nematodes, bacteria and other tiny creatures to the soil and fight disease, boost yields or increase protein? The short answer is yes.

There are more traditional ways of rebuilding soil using green manures, manure, cover crops and adding in crop or plant diversity. There are also researchers within Canada already fingerprinting soil flora and fauna. As George Lasarovits, research director at A &L Biologicals, points out, scientists are constantly discovering new species of soil micro-organisms. Now, the challenge is to separate the friends from the foes, and then determine how best to increase the level of friends below ground. The current thinking is that, eventually, farmers will have access to an inoculant-type product but instead of the very familiar rhizobia inoculant it may be an organism that fixes nitrogen or fights soil-borne diseases.

As it is, Lasarovits company is already performing high-speed soil tests focused on identifying pathogens present and at what level, and what this means for each crop type. As new soil-living species are identified and catalogued, the potential exists for this to become a common add-on to testing for nutrient levels and organic matter. You can read more on what A &L Biologicals is up to in an upcoming issue ofGrainews.

WASTE AND SPOILAGE

Before I leave the issue of soil management and hungry people behind, I will add that a staggering portion of the world s crop production is lost in storage or during its journey to our mouths. The average Canadian family wastes more than $500 a year on groceries that go straight in to the garbage. Imagine the amount wasted because it simply spoils on grocery-store shelves.

Even before food and food ingredients arrive at the store or on our tables, a huge amount of crop is lost in the bin. Anyone who has had an entire bin of canola heat on them is keen to never let it happen again, especially with prices where they are. Oddly enough, it seems that many farmers just expect a certain amount of moulding or spoilage to occur, even though it is relatively easy to avoid.

No, you don t all need grain dryers (though in some areas they re a fantastic investment) or heat on bins. Aeration can work wonders and the simple act of turning a third or more of the bin can upset the moisture migration cycle enough to avoid widespread spoilage. I m always surprised at the lengths farmers will go to boost yields five per cent, only to lose 10 per cent in the bin because they weren t monitoring storage.

John Mayko has done a great job of explaining how and why crops spoil and where to expect heat or moisture pockets (page 10). Moisture and temperature probes are also a low-cost option for bin monitoring, and, realistically, essential once you get passed a certain size of bin. Do yourself a favour and pay just as close attention to crops in the bin as you do the crops in the field.

NEW CEREAL VARIETIES

Each OctoberGrainewshighlights new, exciting varieties available for the next growing season. You may have heard of some of them before, as the idea is to highlight those that are commercially available for the first time. The early issue, this one, is focused on wheat and barley varieties, as Lee Hart has outlined in the cover story. Next issue, we ll run down the new canola, corn, soy and pulse varieties.

I was happy to see the new traits being offered this year improved disease resistance, insect tolerance, better quality parameters. I don t know about you, but I essentially expect such things from crops like canola; it s nice to see cereal lines with some very real benefits for farmers being rolled out. Yield isn t everything, after all (though, in fairness, all these new wheat and barley lines have impressive yield ratings, too).

GIVING THANKS

I have much to be thankful for this month, as many of you do, I m sure. Being among journalists from all over the world and hearing the stories of hardship and challenges in their own countries makes me even more thankful for the peace and safety we enjoy as Canadians. Even our trade and policy challenges, while significant, fade in comparison to areas of the world where an independent magazine like this one wouldn t even be allowed.

I was fascinated to learn that things like Twitter and Facebook, things some call only time-wasters and nothing more, were essential components of information sharing in parts of the world with limited freedom. What a different world, indeed.

Happy Thanksgiving! Lyndsey

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