Precision Plant Breeding – Clarifying ‘What’s in a name?’

Originally published April 26, 2018 in the The Manitoba Cooperator 


Canola Blossoms

Science has always led the way in agriculture, and continues to do so today. Yet advances in plant breeding are being met with skepticism, fear and vehement opposition by many consumers.

Perhaps we aren’t listening closely enough to their concerns. Because we understand the science, we assumed they would too. We’ve failed in telling our story, or at least to the right people. Farmers are great at connecting with other farmers but we need to go beyond our online echo chambers and ensure we’re reaching the end-users.

While we’ve lagged behind, fear-based marketing campaigns have swayed consumers while activists continue to stand in the way of efficient, leading-edge plant breeding methods.

We’re frustrated, but we shouldn’t be surprised.

At medical appointments when doctors use confusing terminology, we stop and ask them to explain in terms we can understand. The same can be said for any expert – they know the technical terms and acronyms specific to their fields, but if they’re trying to convey a message, layman’s terms are needed.

Yet in agriculture we continue to use terms such as GMO, GE, GM, transgenic, CRISPR, TALEN, genome/gene editing and biotech crops. No wonder there is apprehension and confusion. Even when people do not know what a GMO is, they believe it something that should be feared and avoided. See “What’s a GMO?” for Jimmy Kimmel’s take on the subject. He sent a camera crew to a farmers’ market near his studio to ask people what they thought GMO meant.

GMO is now a widely recognized, often misused and misunderstood term. It’s used extensively by media and marketers alike. We can’t abandon it, but we can shift to clearer, all-encompassing terminology which covers all the latest advances.

No matter the type of plant breeding used over the last 10,000 years, the goal has always been the same – genetic improvement. Make the plants better – disease and insect resistant, improved qualities and yields. With newer technologies now available, the process has become extremely precise and efficient. “Precision plant breeding” covers it all in clear, concise and understandable language.

The term is a welcoming, open door to further the conversation as to the benefits on our farms, to the environment, the consumer and those in developing countries.

Precision plant breeding is one of the tools available to help feed our ever-growing world and adapt to changes in the environment. It offers solutions to famine, malnutrition, drought, flooding and disease.

We can’t expect unequivocal acceptance without explanation. We need to effectively communicate to the masses the what, when, why, where and how.

Clearer language is a positive step forward in taking down fences of fear and building bridges of understanding.

Not everyone will be on the same page. But hopefully there will be enough consensus to lead the world to the ultimate goal – abundant, safe, affordable food for all.

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Show. Share. Connect.

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Canola in bloom east of our farmyard

Recently I had the opportunity to host the Manitoba Canola Growers booth at an Ag Awareness Expo. Not having done this before, I was a little nervous. But I was advised to, “Be you. Be authentic. Listen for common ground.”

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“It’s what in the inside that counts”

As people stopped by, conversations began to flow and it wasn’t long before nervousness transformed into enjoyment and ultimately, gratitude.  Parents watched and listened as their children exuberantly ‘crushed canola’ and saw for themselves how it’s possible for those tiny black seeds to make clear yellow canola oil.

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“Shaken not stirred”

Youngsters and adults alike enjoyed picking out ingredients to create and customize salad dressing following the simple 2:1:1 ratio – 2 parts canola oil, 1 part acid (vinegar or citrus), 1 part emulsifier (mustard or honey), adding herbs if they wanted to kick the flavour up a notch.

These hands-on activities led to a variety of discussions on food and farming:

  1.   p1170714The patience a farmer needs to wait for the canola to ripen.
  2.  Bees – how they love canola and so many of us love honey.
  3. Half your Plate– how kids custom-creating their own dressings can lead to trying and consuming more salads and veggies.
  4. Canola meal – how the ‘leftovers’ after the oil are crushed and used in livestock feed, and help dairy cows produce more milk.
  5. Baking and cooking – using canola oil to make cakes, cookies, fries or even grilled-cheese.
  6. Ag in the Classroom – some students had done one or both of our activities at their school though AITC but were either anxious to repeat and/or encourage their sibling or parent to do the same.
  7. The variety of Made-In-Manitoba products and booths around us – using honey, jam or beet juice in a dressing. How quinoa can be used instead of greens for a salad and how lucky we are to have so many prairie fruits to add to flavour to our salads in the summer.

ag-expo-portageThe majority who stopped by were genuinely interested in conversation, with many sharing how they use canola oil in their kitchens. This gave me the opportunity to say, “Thank you,” and, “As a canola grower, I appreciate you using a product we grow on our farm.” Something happened in this moment.  A connection was made. Many did a double take, perhaps surprised. When our crops are sold directly to a grain company or processor, there is no contact with the end-user. I’m not sure I’ve ever had the opportunity to directly thank a consumer, but it felt good.

While hosting this booth was a little out of my comfort zone, I’m glad I accepted the opportunity to show, share and connect. It was enjoyable, gratifying and a reminder to express thanks whenever the opportunity presents itself. While I truly value the sentiment behind “Thank a farmer”, appreciation should flow both ways.

So whether you’re a home cook, chef, baker, dietitian or home economist who chooses canola oil, from our farm to your kitchen – thank you.

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Canola field at sunset

Simply Canola

There is no denying  canola has been the shining star of agriculture across western Canada this past month — as it is every summer when in bloom.  It isn’t unusual to see people stopping alongside the road to snap a picture, or take a selfie against the gorgeous sea of yellow this crop provides. 

Even those of us who grow it, are taken in by the allure of those bright and beautiful blossoms and have been know to take a picture, or two, perhaps more… I’ll admit I may have gotten carried away this year, but the opportunity was irresistible and right out my backdoor. 

We are proud to be one of the over 43,000 Canadian farmers producing this heart-healthy, versatile, edible oil. These are a few of my favourite shots taken on our farm from June 22nd to July 18th. I hope you enjoy my 2016 canola pictorial diary.  

*Click on the pictures for additional description and information.  

Ag careers are waiting for you!

Dear Grad,

mirrorIt’s finally here – high school graduation! A long-anticipated, exciting time, perhaps filled with a bit of trepidation of what the future holds. Do you have a clear vision and goal of what you want to do and where you want to go? If not, why not consider a career in agriculture?

You don’t have to be from a farm, or even from a rural area. If you are at all interested in food and food production, the job opportunities are endless. All you need to bring to the table is a desire to learn.

Ag job factsCurrently 1 in 8 jobs in Canada are connected to agriculture and agri-food production. It is estimated by 2022 there will be 74,000 job openings in the Canadian agri-food sector but one third will go unfilled. There is an opening waiting for you!

While many jobs are directly connected to farming – agronomists, veterinarians, grain and livestock marketers, truckers, mechanics, financial lenders, auctioneers, salespeople – there are so many others related to agriculture.

Research is always ongoing – with plants, animals, soils and the environment along with food processing, transportation, refrigeration and storage. The science behind leading-edge technology and genetics is exciting and ever-changing.

Ag - food demand growthMethods of producing food go beyond the field to greenhouses, hydroponics and aquaculture. World food demand is set to grow by 60 per cent by 2050. The amount of land we have is limited but ideas and innovation for increasing food production are infinite.

Agricultural economics, policy and law play an important role in our industry. Negotiations and trade talks can involve travel all over the world.

As the number of people directly involved in farming continues to decrease, the importance of communication is increasing. We need writers, broadcasters, reporters and social media professionals to ensure factual information is clearly presented to consumers.

Home economists, dietitians and teachers have opportunities with every commodity group and organizations such as Ag in the Classroom, Farm & Food Care and The Canadian Centre for Food Integrity.

Manufacturing and engineering continue to evolve we strive to farm more efficiently. Computer programming, GPS and precision technology are all key in every aspect of our industry.

How about event planning? Conferences, trade shows, tours, meetings, educational and community-connection events all require skilled organizers and promoters.

The business of producing food for a growing world with limited resources is a complex team sport. There are so many facets to chose from – pursue an interest you’re passionate about and join our team! We’re excited to see what you bring to the table.


Check out these great videos showcasing the opportunities waiting for you!

Your Life – Your Agriculture  and Dreams Can Come True with Agriculture

Engaging youth in agriculture

Originally published March 3, 2016 in the Manitoba Cooperator


Becky Parker is a young woman with a vision and passion — to engage and educate youth about agriculture, the agri-food sector and it’s many career opportunities.  She is a Project and Partnership Strategist with Ontario Agri-Food and Education    and a Nuffield Scholar researching models of ag career education.

She shared a rather startling fact at Manitoba Ag Days in January.  It is estimated that by 2022 there will be 74,000 job openings in the Canadian agri-food sector but one third will go unfilled. In fact, Farm Credit Canada has identified a labour shortage in agriculture as the leading risk management factor for our industry.

Parker believes the answer to the labour shortage is sitting in our Canadian classrooms right now.  “There’s a feeling, there’s an identity to working in agriculture,” she said.  We need to excite and engage young people, yet remain realistic. Certain jobs aren’t for everyone, especially in primary production. Many students admit, it is “too much work.” So how can we sell these jobs and open their eyes to other job prospects in agriculture?

First, we need to work on perspective, she advised.  So many view agriculture as farming and/or being a farmer and are unaware of the many other opportunities that exist. Everyone in the industry can work on this issue.

We can start by providing students with hands-on experience — field trips to farms or ‘take a kid to work’ days.  Connect with school guidance counselors and consider apprenticeship programs. Share information on resources.  Ag in the Classroom offers  a variety of learning opportunities for students of all ages.  GrowingCareers.ca is a website designed for both educators and students to explore careers in the agri-food sector.

Secondly, “Be a mentor or teacher,”  Parker stated.  Volunteer with Ag in the Classroom or 4-H. Host a meeting or ag forum, share your experience. Consider what other countries are doing. In New Zealand Get Ahead Career Experience Days are held across the country where students not only meet a variety of successful professionals in the ag industry, but also complete a hands-on activity associated with a particular job. The impact is powerful and positive.

Australia has an Art4Agriculture program where students research an agriculture commodity or issue and present their findings through art on a fiberglass cow – a very innovative and memorable way to teach. It not only brings the farm into the classroom but builds relationships between schools, industry and business while raising awareness of career pathways.

But sharing your story, Parker told the audience, is one of the most important things P1130965you can do. That doesn’t necessarily mean talking about ‘what’ we do – it is far more powerful to share the ‘why’. We are far more likely to inspire if we share the reasons and the passion behind our career choice. Social media provides a great platform but volunteering or everyday conversations also offer opportunities.

Being proactive and starting early will open students’ eyes to the wide variety of jobs available. We each need to do what we can to engage the next generation and ensure a labour shortage will not be a crippling issue for agriculture in 2022. Whether it is on our own or by other means, she encourages all of us to “Step up to plate, and swing the bat.”

Dreams Can Come True with Agriculture