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Footnotes from the Field

Footnotes from the Field: Waste Not, Want Not

in 2020/Current Issue/Fall 2020/Footnotes from the Field/Livestock/Preparation/Soil

Empowering the Human Micronutrient Supply Chain from the Soil Up

Marjorie Harris

I have long accepted that the saying “Healthy Soil, Healthy Plants, Healthy people” fully explained the human nutrient supply chain. Turns out, this is not entirely accurate. In fact, the mineral requirements for healthy plants, animals, and people are quite different.

During organic farm inspection tours, I met a BC farm family diagnosed with selenium deficiency syndromes. The local health unit had identified the conditions. One person suffered from a significant fused spinal curvature from a skeletal muscle disease caused by selenium deficiency.

The farm’s soil tests confirmed that the garden soils were indeed deficient in selenium. The farmer was aware that his newborn livestock required selenium shots to prevent white muscle disease and that his livestock were fed selenium-fortified commercial organic livestock feed.

That BC farmer’s “Aha!” moment came when he made the connection between his garden soils’ lack of selenium and his family’s health problems. My curiosity was piqued. What was going on here—what is selenium and where do we find it?

Selenium is recognized as an essential trace mineral for healthy livestock and it is standard best practice to give selenium shots shortly after birth. In the year 2000, the Canadian government, along with the rest of North America, mandated the addition of selenium minerals to commercial livestock feeds (poultry, swine, beef/dairy, goat, and sheep) as a way to increase animal health and fortify the human food supply in dairy, meat, and eggs. Canadian wildlife surveys have determined that wild creatures also suffer from selenium deficiency diseases. Chronic and subclinical selenium deficiency could be a contributing factor to recent wildlife population declines, as other causes have not been identified.

I was surprised to learn from the government of Alberta’s Agri-Fax sheet that plants do not use selenium and do not show deficiency symptoms from its lack in the soil. At the same time, there are a few plants, such as locoweeds, that can hyperaccumulate selenium to levels that are toxic to livestock when selenium concentrations are high in the soil.

It was only relatively recently that we realized selenium was essential for human health. In 1979, Chinese scientists made the discovery while investigating the deaths of thousands of young women and children in the Keshan County of North Eastern China. The condition associated with these deaths was named Keshan disease, after the county where it was first recognized. The Chinese scientists discovered that selenium supplementation could correct the disorder. Since then, much has been learned about how selenium acts as a mineral in the human body in conjunction with other trace minerals such as chromium and iodine, which are also not used by plants.

Selenium deficiency is regarded as a major worldwide health problem with estimates of between 500 million to 1 billion people living with selenium deficiency diseases. Even larger numbers of people are consuming less then what is needed for optimal protection against cancer, cardiovascular diseases, and infectious diseases.

Researchers have found that selenium is widely distributed throughout the body’s tissues and of high importance for many regulatory and metabolic functions. Selenium is very much like a “Goldilocks” micronutrient: you need just the right amount. Too much or too little can lead to serious health consequences. The Recommended Daily Amount (RDA) in Canada for adults and children 14 and up is 55 micrograms per day. Our dietary selenium is taken up in the gut and becomes incorporated into more than 30 selenoproteins and selenoenzymes that play critical roles in human biological processes. Selenium is considered a cornerstone of the body’s antioxidant defense system as an integral component required for glutathione peroxidase (GPx) activity. The GPx enzyme family plays a major role in protection against oxidative stress.

In addition, selenoproteins regulate many physiological processes, including the immune system response, brain neurotransmitter functioning, male and female reproductive fertility, thyroid hormone functioning, DNA synthesis, cardiovascular health, mental health, and heavy metal chelation. Selenoproteins have a protective effect against some forms of cancer, possess chemo-preventive properties, and regulate the inflammatory mediators in asthma.

Many chronic diseases have been linked to selenium deficiency. A short list includes: diabetes, Alzheimer’s, lupus, autoimmune disease, arthritis, schizophrenia, cardiovascular disease, degenerative muscle diseases, neurological diseases, and rheumatoid arthritis. The selenium GPX-1 immune defense system has demonstrated antiviral capability. GPx-1 is found in most body cells, including red blood cells.

Some lipid-enveloped viruses pirate host selenium resources as a strategy to outmaneuver the host immune selenium-activated GPX-1 antioxidant system. If a host is selenium-deficient the virus can overwhelm the host GPX-1 immune response. In selenium-competent individuals the GPX-1 initiates an immune response cascade which inhibits viral replication and clears the virus from host. Selenium’s antiviral defense ability has been documented for Ebola, coronavirus, SARS-2003, influenza viruses (swine and bird flus), HIV, herpes viruses, cytomegalovirus (CMV), Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), hepatitis B and C, Newcastle disease virus, rubella (German measles), varicella (chicken pox), smallpox, swine fever, and West Nile virus. There are a number of studies showing that selenium deficiency negatively impacts the course of HIV, and that selenium supplementation may delay the onset of full-blown AIDS.

While the research is still unfolding and it is too early to make determinative conclusions about COVID-19 and potential treatments, preliminary research indicates several interesting lines of inquiry. COVD-19 researchers in China published new data on April 28, 2020 making an association the COVID-19 “cure rates and death rates” and the soil selenium status of the region. Higher deaths rates were observed in populations living inside soil selenium-poor regions such as Hubei Province. Regional population selenium status was measured through hair samples. Samples were collected and compared from 17 different Chinese cities: “Results show an association between the reported cure rates for COVID-19 and selenium status. These data are consistent with the evidence of the antiviral effects of selenium from previous studies.”

By now, you’ve probably figured out that we can’t live without selenium. The evidence is clear: human and animal health is dependent on selenium, and yet it is the rarest micronutrient element in the Earth’s crust. Selenium is classed as a non-renewable resource because there are no ore deposits from which Selenium can be mined as the primary product. Most selenium is extracted as a by-product of copper mining.

Selenium has many industrial applications because of its unique properties as a semi-conductor. The most outstanding physical property of crystalline selenium is its photoconductivity. In sunlight electrical conductivity increases more than 1,000-fold, making it prized for use in solar energy panels and many other industrial uses that ultimately draw selenium out of the food chain, potentially permanently.

Selenium is very unevenly dispersed on land masses worldwide, ranging from deficient to toxic concentrations, with 70% to 80% of global agricultural lands considered to be deficient. Countries dominated by selenium-poor soils include Canada, Western and Eastern European, China, Russia, and New Zealand. Worldwide selenium-deficient soils are widespread, and increasing.

Naturally selenium-rich soils are primarily associated with marine environments. Ancient oceans leave behind dehydrated selenium salts as they recede. Here in Canada the receding salt waters of the Western Interior and Hudson seaways left mineral deposits from the Badlands of Alberta, following along the southern borders of Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

Some countries, including Finland and New Zealand, have added selenium (selenite) to fertilizer programs to fortify the soils with some success. Results show that only a small proportion of the selenium is taken up by plants and much of the remainder becomes bound up in non-bioavailable complexes out of reach for future plant utilization. On this basis, it is thought that large scale selenium biofortification with commercial fertilizers would be too wasteful for application to large areas of our planet. The geographic variability of selenium content, environmental conditions, and agricultural practices all have a profound influence on the final selenium content of our foods. Iodine, which works hand-in-hand with selenium, is even more randomly variable in soils and food crops.

The Globe and Mail ran the following January 2, 2020 headline: “Canadian researchers combat arsenic poisoning with Saskatchewan-grown lentils.” In 2012, it was estimated by the WHO that 39 million Bangladeshis were exposed to high levels of arsenic in their drinking water, and the World Health Organization (WHO) deemed Bangladesh’s arsenic poisoned groundwater crisis the “largest mass poisoning of a population in history.” As it turns out, the lentils from southern Saskatchewan accumulate enough selenium that they could be used as a “food-medicine” in Bangladesh as a cure for arsenic poisoning. Clinical trials conducted from 2015 to 2016 found that participants eating selenium-rich lentils had a breakthrough moment when urine samples confirmed that arsenic was being flushed from their bodies. Other studies have also shown that selenium binds to mercury to remove it from the body.

Now that we are finally wrapping our minds around the fact that our personal health depends on just the right amount of selenium, we find out that the health of future generations may depend on it even more. It takes more than one parent’s generation to produce a single child. While a female fetus is growing in the womb, the eggs of the gestating mother’s grandchildren are also being formed in the ovaries of the fetus. The viability of the grandchildren’s DNA is protected from oxidative stress damage by antioxidant selenium. Oxidative stress on the new DNA could potentially result in epigenetic changes for future generations. The selenium intake of the grandparent directly affects the grandchildren. From this point of view, it is seen as imperative that all childbearing people have access to sufficient selenium. Selenium is essential for healthy spermatogenesis and for female reproductive health, as well as the brain formation of the fetus. In short, humanity is dependent on selenium for health—now and forever.

The world’s selenium resources are scarce and need to be carefully managed for future generations. Since both the human and livestock food chains are being fortified with this scarce resource, the manures from these sources are worth more then their weight in gold. The natural cycles of returning resources dictates that livestock manures need to be guided back into the soil for crop production. Human biosolids can be guided into fiber crops or forest production. Over time, livestock manures will fortify the soils with all of the micronutrients passing through their systems. Human manures passing through fiber crops can eventually be composted and recycled into crop production, returning selenium continually to the human micronutrient supply chain.

Waste not, want not.

Marjorie Harris, IOIA VO and concerned organophyte.

Evans, I., Solberg, E. (1998). Minerals for Plants, Animals and Man, Agri-Fax Alberta Agriculture, Food and Rural Development:$department/deptdocs.nsf/all/agdex789/$file/531-3.pdf?OpenElement
Haug, A., et al. (2007). How to use the world’s scarce selenium resources efficiently to increase the selenium concentration in food, Microbial Ecology in Health and Disease: Dec 19: 209 – 228. DOI: 10.1080/08910600701698986
Jagoda, K. W., Power, R., Toborek, M. (2016). Biological activity of
selenium: Revisited, IUBMB Life – Review: Feb;68(2):97-105. DOI: 10.1002/iub.1466
Brown, K.M., Arthur, J.R. (2001). Selenium, Selenoproteins and human health: a review, Public Health Nutrition: Volume 4, Issue 2b pp. 593-599. DOI:
Harthill M., (2011). Review: Micronutrient Selenium Deficiency Influences Evolution of Some Viral Infectious Diseases, Biol Trace Elem Res. 143:1325–1336. DOI:
Zhang, J. et al. (2020). Association between regional selenium status and reported outcome of COVID-19 cases in China, Am J Clin Nutr.
Carbert, M., (2020). Canadian researchers combat arsenic poisoning with Saskatchewan-grown lentils, The Globe and Mail:
Sears, M.E. (2013). Chelation: Harnessing and Enhancing Heavy Metal Detoxification—A Review, The Scientific World Journal.

Footnotes from the Field: Fairness in Organic Agriculture

in 2020/Footnotes from the Field/Grow Organic/Land Stewardship/Organic Community/Organic Standards/Standards Updates/Summer 2020

Anne Macey

Originally published in The Canadian Organic Grower, Spring 2018, and updated by the author in May 2020, with thanks.

The International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) has established its Principles of Organic Agriculture. Within those, IFOAM includes a Principle of Fairness, which states “Organic agriculture should be built on relationships that ensure fairness with regard to the common environment and life opportunities.” The IFOAM text elaborates further, saying this principle “emphasizes that those involved in organic agriculture should conduct human relationships in a manner that ensures fairness at all levels and to all parties—farmers, workers, processors, distributors, traders, and consumers.”

Many of us have always thought of organic agriculture as a food system that includes social values, yet nothing in our standards speaks to social issues. The focus is very much on agronomic practices and permitted substances. Animal welfare is addressed, but when it comes to people and relationships, North Americans have resisted any suggestion that social justice standards are needed. The argument is that those kinds of standards are written for the global South where exploitation of the work force and poor working conditions are more common. The US and Canada have labour laws to protect farm workers.

I am not so sure, and in any case, fairness in the food system is about much more than treatment of farm workers. Fairness and basic rights include fair trade, fair pricing for the farmer, and fair access to land and seeds. It means fair wages for workers, decent farmworker housing, and more. I agree that incorporating social issues into standards could be problematic, but it is time we had a serious discussion about whether they are needed—and, if not, whether there is an alternative approach. How we can create trust and demonstrate that organic farmers respect their workers as much as the critters in the soil? How can we ensure farmers get a fair price for the quality food they produce?

Colleagues in the US (Michael Sligh, Elizabeth Henderson, and others) worked on these issues with the Agricultural Justice Project (see sidebar on Social Standards in Food Production), developing social stewardship standards for fair and just treatment of people who work in organic and sustainable agriculture. These standards currently fall into the realm of “beyond organic” with the stated purpose:

  • To allow everyone involved in organic and sustainable production and processing a quality of life that meets their basic needs and allows an adequate return and satisfaction from their work, including a safe working environment.
  • To progress toward an entire production, processing and distribution chain that is both socially just and ecologically responsible.1

Here in Canada, two things got me thinking more about the need to introduce something on the topic of fairness in the Canadian Standard. The first was hearing about the poor housing with no potable water for migrant workers on a fruit farm in the Okanagan (not an organic farm), despite laws being in place to protect those workers.

The second is the debate about farm interns and apprentice rights on organic farms. With high labour requirements, many organic farms depend on WWOOFers and other short-term interns for their work force. But sometimes the relationship sours and the workers end up feeling exploited. While many farmers commit to providing a rich and rewarding experience for their interns, in other cases conditions are less than ideal. An intern’s expectation will likely include learning what it takes to become a farmer, not just how to weed carrots.

Maybe we don’t need to spell out lots of specific requirements in the standards, but we could at least make some principled statements about the need for organic agriculture to provide fair working and living conditions for farmers and their workers, whatever their status. For years this type of approach was used in the livestock standards, without the need to spell out exactly what was needed for compliance. We only articulated more specific rules when consumers became unsure about the ability of organic agriculture to address animal welfare issues and started looking for other labels. We could also include statements about fair prices and financial returns for farmers or buyers’ rights to a good quality product.

Unfortunately, since writing this article not much has changed. To bring the discussion to the table, I made some proposals for the 2018 standards revision process. The Organic Technical Committee set up a task force on the topic but no agreement was reached, although it might end up as an informative appendix to facilitate the review in 2025. In the meantime, following a discussion at the 2020 COABC conference we wondered if COABC should conduct a pilot project which, if successful, could be brought forward to the 2025 standards review. Perhaps a first step might be for organic operators to have a “letter of agreement” or similar in the first language of their employees and interns committing the operator to uphold the principles of social fairness regardless of any other formal labour contract that might exist.

The conversation continues.

Social Standards in Food Production

Domestic Fair Trade: The Agricultural Justice Project is a member of the Domestic Fair Trade Association along with a wide range of farmworker and farmer groups, retailers, processors and NGOs from across North America. These groups are united in their mission to promote and protect the integrity of domestic fair trade.

Farmer Direct Co-op, a 100% farmer-owned, organic co-op based in Saskatchewan, was a leader in domestic fair trade, as the first business in North America to earn that certification. Its membership includes more than 60 family farms producing organic small grains and pulse crops in the Prairie region.

Domestic fair-trade certification is based on a set of 16 principles, encompassing health, justice, and sustainability:

  • Family scale farming
  • Capacity building for producers and workers
  • Democratic and participatory ownership and control
  • Rights of labor
  • Equality and opportunity
  • Direct trade
  • Fair and stable pricing
  • Shared risk & affordable credit
  • Long-term trade relationships
  • Sustainable agriculture
  • Appropriate technology
  • Indigenous Peoples’ rights
  • Transparency & accountability
  • Education & advocacy
  • Responsible certification and marketing
  • Animal welfare

Source: Domestic Fair Trade Association

Aquaculture: The Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) includes social requirements in its standards certifying responsibly farmed seafood. “ASC certification imposes strict requirements based on the core principles of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), these include prohibiting the use of child labour or any form of forced labour. All ASC certified farms are safe and equitable working environments where employees earn a decent wage and have regulated working hours. Regular consultation with surrounding communities about potential social impacts from the farm and proper processing of complaints are also required by certified farms.”

Source: Aquaculture Stewardship Council

Anne Macey is a long-time advocate for organic agriculture at local, provincial, national and international levels. She has served on the CGSB technical committee on organic agriculture, the ECOA Animal Welfare Task Force, the COABC Accreditation Board and on the Accreditation Committee for the International Organic Accreditation Service, as well as her local COG chapter. She is a writer/editor of COG’s Organic Livestock Handbook, a retired sheep farmer, and a past president of COG.

1. Agricultural Justice Project. 2012. Social Stewardship Standards in Organic and Sustainable Agriculture: Standards Document.

Footnotes from the Field: Improving Poultry Rations

in 2020/Footnotes from the Field/Grow Organic/Livestock/Organic Standards/Spring 2020

Improving Poultry Rations to Accommodate Natural Behaviours & Strengthen Supply Chains

Marjorie Harris

COR Section 6.4: Livestock feed
6.4.3 – Specific livestock rations shall take the following into account:
j) poultry and pigs shall be given vegetable matter other than grain;
k) poultry shall be fed daily…

Why did the chicken cross the road? To eat organic greens of course!

It is well understood that a very important natural behaviour of a healthy and happy hen’s lifestyle is to scratch and peck vegetation and dirt.

The COR standard 6.4.3 (j) states that poultry shall be given vegetable matter other than grain and (k) states they be fed daily.

While the wording and use of language of this standard has led to many confused looks and interpretations by the industry, the intent of this standard is to support the natural behaviours of poultry. It also begs the question, what kind of vegetable matter for poultry?

Thankfully, at the Roundtable Q & A session held at this years’ COABC conference, Anne Macey shared information to help clarify the standards pertaining to poultry nutrition and natural behaviours and how they relate to outdoor access, pasture, and vegetables.

Anne suggested an appropriate interpretation for the term ‘vegetable matter,’ would be ‘green matter,’ and that the simplest solution is to hang sufficient alfalfa/grass hay mesh bags/baskets in the barns for the birds to peck.

The reasons why the hanging hay bag/basket is the simplest and potentially the only current solution for providing green matter on a daily basis in today’s organic poultry industry are discussed here, including the supply chain disruption for organic alfalfa pellets.

Pasture constitutes one possible source of green matter. However, there are several limitations that affect the amount of time green matter can be consumed on pasture, such as weather conditions, season, and vegetation cover. Pasture vegetation can quickly be degraded to dirt by flocks eagerly scratching and pecking.

Requirements for outdoor access, and access to rotational pasture, contained in 6.7.1 (a & j); 6.13.1 (c (2)) are sometimes mistakenly thought to meet the green matter provision. Anne Macey pointed out that these standards also present many limitations for accessing green matter on a daily basis.

Outdoor access during inclement weather can be achieved using winter gardens that typically have sand or sawdust for scratch and no vegetation. Pullets can be kept indoors during vaccination programs and never see the light of day and then be placed directly into layer barns and continue to be kept indoors until peak egg production around 26 weeks of age. The COR standard 6.13.1 (f) only speaks to laying flocks having access to outdoors as little as one-third of laying life. The standards pertaining to outdoor access, and access to pasture, are clearly insufficient to account for the daily green matter provisions of 6.4.3 (j & k).

The overarching standard COR 6.4.3, ‘Specific livestock rations shall take the following into account,’ is interpreted in (j) to refer to the natural behaviours exhibited by the animal while feeding.

The next step is to determine what kinds of green matter would be suitable for use in the various types of poultry operations: ducks, turkeys, broilers, pullets, and layer hens. This is where the application of the standards becomes more complex.

The first thing to consider is that rearing a small flock of less than 200 birds and rearing a large flock of 200 to 10,000 or more birds employ entirely different animal husbandry barn setups, with each method presenting its own set of challenges.

Small flocks are typically part of a mixed farm production unit and poultry will benefit from on-farm garden and orchard waste throughout the growing season. Small scale farms that overwinter poultry can provide a wide range of green matter from hay to sprouted fodder. Large flocks regulated under the egg marketing boards are the main production units of the farm and are raised under tight biosecurity regulations in comparison to small scale farms.

Livestock feed suppliers across Canada are governed by the Feed Act regulations which adds one more wrinkle to how green matter can be supplied in feed. BC feed producers produce a ‘coarse mash’ complete nutrition feed. In contrast, the Ontario poultry feed industry has switched over to a completely ‘pelleted’ complete nutrition feed.

Leanne Cooley, MSc., Poultry Scientist, working in the Ontario poultry industry, described how green matter is provided both as a feed ingredient, and as hay for natural behaviour. Dehydrated alfalfa is mostly indigestible by poultry and when it is included in the pelleted feed certain enzymes must be included to assist in the digestion of alfalfa. According to Cooley, “Insoluble grit is provided either as, or in combination, in free choice feeders and/or in the hens feed to assist in forage digestion and prevent birds developing impacted crops. Hay (second or third cut preferred), alfalfa, or hay-alfalfa blend may be done hanging in mesh bags or baskets, or scattered as litter. I see both. Warning —do not use straw!”

Hanging alfalfa or grass hay in mesh bags or baskets is a good method for accommodating the birds’ need to fulfill natural behaviors for scratching and pecking on a daily basis. When alfalfa/grass hay is made available to the birds early in life it can help to reduce and prevent the poultry pecking behavior that results in bird cannibalism.

Hanging the hay in bags or baskets will also keep the hay clean and out of any moving parts of larger egg layer operations. Pullet and broiler operations typically provide the hay as litter which doubles as scratch.

Organic alfalfa pellets are also a good, clean, sterilized source for ‘green matter.’ Unfortunately, there has been a supply chain shortage and currently there are no organic alfalfa pellets available from Western Canadian producers. The supply chain has suffered in the past few years due to an inappropriately applied ‘commercial availability’ clause in the PSL Can-CGSB 32-311 Table 4.2. This clause, without proper scrutiny, has become a loophole allowing crop producers to use no-spray and non-gmo alfalfa meal and pellets at lower cost. This left only livestock producers in place to purchase organic alfalfa pellets, and not able to create enough demand on the supply chain to keep it healthy in Western Canada. The Ontario supply chain is strong with Ontario Dehy Inc. supplying the Ontario poultry farmers with organic alfalfa pellets.

Western Alfalfa Milling Company (WAMCO) is a pioneer in the industry and grows and processes alfalfa near Norquay, Saskatchewan. WAMCO is certified organic to produce organic alfalfa meals, pellets, and hays. However, due to the misapplication of the commercial availability clause noted above the greater demand was for conventional alfalfa pellets as green fertilizer and mulch. WAMCO had to make a ‘supply and demand’ business decision this year to downsize alfalfa pellet production in 2020 from 60,000 tons a year to just 6,500 tons a year, with a focus on the conventional green fertilizer market. WMACO sales representative, April Guertin, shared some industry history, noting that 20 years ago there were 48 alfalfa pellet producers in Canada, shrinking down to only 3 producers in 2019, with only Ontario Dehy Inc. and WAMCO being certified organic. WAMCO gave assurance that if requests for organic alfalfa pellets were placed now at the beginning of the 2020 growing season, then WAMCO could certainly fill the orders for poultry and crop producers.

In summary, the intention behind COR 6.4.3 (j & k) is that poultry shall be given rations of green matter with respect to meeting their natural behavior needs for pecking and scratching daily. Options that would work for both small and large scale producers include alfalfa/grass hays hanging in bags or baskets and as litter and alfalfa pellets. Livestock producers need to be aware of keeping supply chains viable, strong, and competitive by ordering product ahead of the growing season. Crop producers can also buy into the organic supply chain, avoiding the misappropriate uses of the ‘commercial availability’ clauses for green fertilizer and mulches, further strengthening supply chains for the entire organic industry.

Marjorie Harris, IOI VO and concerned organophyte.

Footnotes from the Field: Organic Supply Chain

in 2020/Crop Production/Footnotes from the Field/Organic Standards/Tools & Techniques/Winter 2020

Integrity from Field to Fork

Marjorie Harris

COR Section 8: Maintaining organic integrity during cleaning, preparation and transportation

Operators are responsible for maintaining organic integrity at all points of the market supply chain, from production through point of sale to the final consumer.

Organic product integrity, from the farmer’s field to the consumer’s fork, is maintained through an organic product supply chain that identifies critical control points where preventive and protective measures are taken to prevent co-mingling or contamination of the organic product. The organic supply chain’s integrity control points are often designated with signage as a prevention and control measure that follows the organic product through production and handling to the consumer. The organic supply chain is verified for integrity and compliance during the organic inspection.

What are the attributes of organic products whose integrity are being protected throughout the supply chain?

IFOAM’s Four Principles of Organic Production provides a vision of organic production as a sociologically and ecologically integrated food production system for a healthy planet:

  • Principle of Health: Healthy soil, plants, animals, and humans equal a healthy planet;
  • Principle of Fairness: Equity, respect, and justice for all living things;
  • Principle of Ecology: Emulating and sustaining natural systems; and
  • Principle of Care: For the generations to come.

Certified organic foods produced following these principles gain these intrinsic philosophical attributes as well as measurable characteristics. The consumer’s confidence in the ability of organic production to provide premium quality foods is directly linked to the consumers positive perception of organic integrity being maintained in all aspects of the organic supply chain.

Here in BC, the 2018 implementation of enforceable provincial regulations governing the use of the label “organic” in the marketplace reinforces positive public perception and confidence in organic foods as premium products. Nationally, the Canadian organic industry has won a strong ally and partner with skills and tools for oversight and monitoring the organic supply chain—as of Jan 15th, 2019, the Canada Organic Regime (COR) regulations are in force as Part 13 of Safe Food for Canadians Regulations (SFCR), under the jurisdiction of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA).
CFIA is responsible for the compliance verification and enforcement of Part 13 of SFCR COR regulations. Oversight and management mechanisms include:

  • Organic Certification Bodies (CBs) are accredited by Conformity Verification Bodies (CVBs). COABC is a CVB.
  • CVBs are designated and audited by CFIA.
  • As per Directive 14-01 (see sidebar), organic products are selected at random or by cause for chemical residue testing as part of CFIA’s chemical residue monitoring and surveillance programs.
  • All pesticide violations in excess of Maximum Residue Limits (MRLs) are investigated by CFIA.

Directive 14-01 specifies the criteria and timelines for reporting that a CB shall follow when CFIA delivers positive chemical residue results from an organic product. CFIA has set the actionable range for CBs from below < 0.01 ppm to above 5% of an applicable MRL for the specified pesticide.

Continued growth in the organic sector relies in part on consumer confidence in the delivery of a chemical residue free organic product. Chemical residue testing and monitoring of the organic supply chain has intensified as the organic industry has grown and become regulated. Chemical residue testing has become the go-to tool for verifying that organic products are not contaminated. In the global marketplace organic producers are also dealing with the challenges of meeting additional chemical residue rules for private and off-shore organic certification regimes that are operating surveillance and testing programs within Canada.

Signage designating organic production is an important tool that provides risk reduction measures for preventing co-mingling and chemical contamination at critical control points. Here are a few anecdotal examples to illustrate key control points in organic market supply chain from field to fork:

  • The buffer zone is a critical control point, providing a “clearly defined and identifiable boundary area that separates an organic production unit from adjacent non-organic areas.” Signage along roadway buffers indicating “No Spray” and “Organic Farm” is often an effective method to alert local weed spray programs not to spray, although mistakes do still occur. One incident involved a well-signed buffer fence for organic livestock pasture. The livestock farmer had posted signs at each field corner post and in between as needed. The district Invasive Weed Program staff somehow sprayed through the buffer zone and a fair distance over the fence into the organic pasture. The farmer’s pregnant livestock were grazing in the pasture at the time and were exposed to the sprays. Unfortunately, this meant the herd had to be decertified and could not be sold as organic. The farmer had an avenue of legal recourse available for financial compensation because the signage was clearly visible on the pasture fence.
  • Chemical spray drifts are more likely to deposit residues onto organic fields that are not adequately protected by leafy hedgerows growing in the buffer zone. Some off-shore organic certification regimes hold more restrictive limits on chemical residues and send surveillance teams to take test samples of soil and plant tissues on crops destined for export markets. One farmer learned the hard way that planting thick vegetated buffers are worthwhile for preventing, or at least reducing, spray drift—when his crop tested positive for chemical residues, his contract was nullified.
  • Contamination can occur with packaging materials. COR Section 8.1.6 states that “organic product packaging shall: a) maintain organic product quality and integrity.” In one situation, imported berries became contaminated after being packed in conventional cardboard boxes for shipping. The country from which the berries were being imported sprays all cardboard boxes with fungicides as a common agricultural packing procedure. The trace amounts of fungicide left in the box transferred to the berries at detectable levels. Organic packaging needs to be clearly segregated and labeled as organic to prevent packaging mistakes.
  • COR speaks to the need for temporary signage to be attached to wagons or trucks to visibly identify a load when at-risk organic crops are being moved between bulk storage bins. A producer who had all of his organic documentation in order was able to be compensated full price for his organic crop when it was discovered to have residues from being comingled at the seed cleaning plant.
  • Contamination by chemical residues or plant-derived toxins can occur through a variety of mechanical primary and secondary processes such as cleaning, dehulling, scouring, polishing, pearling, milling, puffing, grinding, and splitting. Even though conventional equipment is cleaned or purged before the organic product is processed, CFIA has found that detectable residues are often transferred to the organic product. It is important for the organic industry to secure dedicated organic equipment to prevent theses residue transfers during processing.
  • Organic products shall be accompanied by the information specified in COR Section 8.4.2., including the product’s organic status and traceability information. The organic certificate establishes the product’s organic status and is an essential supply chain document. While conducting random surveillance, CFIA purchased imported grain from a grocery store and tested for residues—a shocker, almost two dozen pesticides were detected! Further investigations by the CB revealed that the bulk product had been purchased with solely an invoice stating “organic”. The supporting organic certificate did not accompany the sale. The product was not traceable and was very likely a case of fraudulent product.
  • The organic market supply chain depends on risk reduction measures to be implemented and actively monitored to prevent contamination and comingling. Everyone benefits when organic integrity is maintained, from the farmer to the final consumer, who can have full confidence in their choice of a premium organic product.

Directive 14-01 in Brief:

When a product contains chemical residues in excess of the Maximum Residue Limit, CFIA will follow-up on the non-compliance in addition to the CB. 

4.1 When chemical residues are detected below < 0.01 ppm:

  • the CB shall inform the operator that chemical residues are present
  • at the next scheduled inspection, the CB will assess why chemical residues were present and may sample for chemical residues
  • deliberate use of prohibited chemicals by an operator shall result in the CB initiating the suspension/cancellation process as per Part 13 of the SFCR

4.2 CB actions when chemical residues are detected:

1. Between 0.01 ppm and 5% of an applicable MRL (inclusive); or 

2. Between 0.01 ppm and 0.1 ppm if no MRL is specified (inclusive),

  • the CB shall inform the operator that chemical residues are present;
  • the CB shall assess why chemical residues were present and shall sample products currently available at the operation or production site for chemical residues no later than the next scheduled inspection. If the affected lot is not available, a different lot should be sampled. If the affected product is not available, a similar product should be sampled;
  • if the inspection and sampling indicate continued presence of prohibited chemicals which is not due to deliberate use, the CB shall issue a non-conformity (NC) and request corrective action within a specified time frame;
  • if the inspection and sampling indicate deliberate use of prohibited chemicals by an operator, the CB shall initiate suspension/cancellation of the operation as per Part 13 of the SFCR; and 
  • the CB shall report findings to the CFIA through their CVB by using the CFIA standardized reporting template within 60 working days from the inspection.

4.3 CB actions when chemical residues are detected:

1. Above 5% of an applicable MRL; or

2. Above 0.1 ppm if no MRL is specified,

  • the CB shall immediately schedule an inspection and initiate an investigation to determine why chemical residues are present;
  • the CB shall conduct additional sampling of products currently available at the operation or production site as part of the investigation. If the affected lot is not available, a different lot should be sampled. If the affected product is not available, a similar product should be sampled; and
  • if the inspection and sampling indicate continued presence of prohibited chemicals which is not due to deliberate use, the CB shall issue a non-conformity (NC) and request corrective action within a specified time frame. Products shall lose their organic certification status as per section 7.11.1 (b) of ISO/IEC 17065 if chemical residues are detected above 5% of an applicable MRL OR above 0.1 ppm if no MRL is specified.

Further reading: and-guidance/organic-products/ guidance-documents/directive-14-01/eng/1398462727461/1398462789113 and-guidance/organic-products/operating- manual/eng/1389199079075/1554143470958?chap=2

Marjorie Harris, BSc, IOIA VO and Organophyte.

Footnotes from the Field: Fall 2019

in 2019/Climate Change/Fall 2019/Footnotes from the Field/Grow Organic/Land Stewardship/Organic Standards/Standards Updates/Water Management

Water, Water, Everywhere… and Not a Drop to Drink!

Marjorie Harris

Special thanks to Tim Rundle of Creative Salmon for helping pull this synopsis on Aquaculture together!

The Canadian Aquaculture Standard CAN/CGSB-32.312 was published in 2012, with the new revision released in February 2018. The Aquaculture Standard stipulates the following:

Section 1.3: In the event of any conflict or inconsistency between this standard and CAN/CGSB-32.310 /311, this standard will take precedence.
Section 1.4: Prohibited substances list is identical to organic agriculture except that the soil amendments clause is expanded for aquaculture – Soil, sediment, benthic, and water amendments that contain a substance not listed in clause 11.

Seventy percent of our blue planet’s surface is covered by the oceanic ecosystem. Short of desalination, that water isn’t available for drinking, and yet the oceans’ salt water has all of the micronutrients required for human health. As of 2012, farmed fish production throughout the world outpaced beef production.1 Surprisingly, 60% of British Columbia’s exported agricultural products come from aquaculture operations. In 2017, Canada’s wild fish catch harvest was 851,510 million tonnes, and the aquaculture harvest was 191,416 million tonnes.2

Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) tracks 179 wild fish stocks worldwide, and states that “fishing is a global industry, and of key importance to Canada. Sadly, overfishing, illegal fishing activities, and the destruction of ocean ecosystems are serious global issues that require immediate and continuing attention. Canada is committed to combating these problems.”3

According to the Earth Policy Institute, these trends illustrate the latest stage in a historic shift in food production—a shift that at its core is a story of natural limits: “The bottom line is that getting much more food from natural systems may not be possible.” In terms of resources required for livestock production, “Cattle consume seven pounds of grain or more to produce an additional pound of beef. This is twice as high as the grain rations for pigs, and over three times those of poultry.” In contrast, states the Earth Policy Institute, “Fish are far more efficient, typically taking less than two pounds of feed to add another pound of weight. Pork and poultry are the most widely eaten forms of animal protein worldwide, but farmed fish output is increasing the fastest.”1

Clearly, it looks like aquaculture is here to stay as a form of high quality, lower input, method of protein production, but is it the answer? Conventional aquaculture systems have left a legacy of controversy and environmental issues when operated in natural ecosystems.

Can organic aquaculture meet the needs for human food production and be environmentally friendly?

On January 25th, 2019, I attended an organic aquaculture training given by Tim Rundle, General Manager of Creative Salmon, North America’s only major producer of indigenous Pacific Chinook (King) salmon and Canada’s first producer of certified organic farm-raised salmon.

The biggest take away for me was that I was impressed with the standard’s requirements for the farmed species to be indigenous or adapted to the region. This requirement is a huge improvement over conventional systems. For example, Atlantic salmon being raised in conventional farmed systems in BC coastal waters are plagued by sea lice, while Creative Salmon’s Chinook salmon have a natural resistance to sea lice and no parasite treatments have been required—the species is indigenous or adapted to living where it is being raised with respect to its natural requirements.4

In an article featured on Aquaculture North America, Liza Mayer writes, “Rundle is first to admit that organic farming is not easy. Compared to conventional farming, fish raised under organic standards are provided added space in the pen enclosures,” in a parallel to the stocking requirements for land-based livestock in the organic standards. Moyer goes on to explain that “Chinooks, known to be more aggressive than their Atlantic cousins, swim freely because there are fewer of them in the pen, but it also means lower harvest volume. For Creative Salmon, that is 8 kilograms of fish per cubic meter maximum, although organic standards allow up to 10 kilograms of fish per cubic meter. Density in conventional farming could be from 20 to 25 kilograms per cubic metre.”5

What does the Aquaculture Standard cover?

Aquaculture is defined as the cultivation of crops or livestock in a controlled or managed aquatic environment (marine and land based freshwater and salt water operations). Aquaculture products are crops and livestock, or a product wholly or partly derived therefrom, cultivated in a controlled or managed aquatic environment. Aquaponics is also covered by the new Aquaculture Standard and is defined as a production system that combines the cultivation of crops and livestock in a symbiotic relationship. The products of fishing and wild animals are not considered part of this definition.

Recently, conventional aquaponics received some negative press due to the announcement that CanadaGap would be withdrawing aquaculture from its FoodSafe certification programs due to the use of antibiotics, which end up being incorporated into the plant and livestock products. Organic aquaculture does not allow for the use of antibiotics, and so the discussions around aquaponics need clarity to highlight the differences between conventional and organic productions systems. As aquaponics entrepreneur Gabe Cipes explains, “We have two conventional agricultural systems, aquaculture and hydroponics, that are dependent on chemical inputs and are decidedly bad for human health and the health of the environment.”

Cipes, who has extensive experience in organic and biodynamic farming, says that “If those two conventional systems are combined [into aquaponics] and managed according to the organic Aquaculture Standards, then the fish take care of the plants and the plants take care of the fish and there is no need for chemical or conventional inputs.” The benefit of aquaponics, according to Cipes, is the ability to “create a closed loop ecology that is beneficial for humans and our ecology. It is a high density, low foot print method of food production that could be an integral and biologically secure part of the future of food security and sovereignty if given the opportunity.”

Aquaculture is already producing more fish than wild catches and the predictions are that aquaculture will keep growing at a steady rate. British Columbia is a leading salmon producer in the world and is Canada’s leader in aquaculture production. There is tremendous opportunity to expand organic aquaculture production in BC!

Hungry for More Aquaculture Info?

World Resources Institute projects that aquaculture production will need to more than double by 2050. But how to get there sustainably? Check out their findings, along with the recommendations they’re making to transform the aquaculture industry:

Marjorie Harris, BSc, IOIA VO and Organophyte.

Feature image: Wapta Falls, Yoho Park, BC. Credit: Keith Young (CC)

1. Earth Policy Institute: update114
2. Fisheries and Oceans, Fast Facts:
3. Fisheries and Oceans Canada:
4. Rundle, Tim. (2019, January), Creative Salmon. Presented at the Organic Aquaculture Training of the International Organic Inspectors Association.
5. Mayer, Liza. (2018, February). Creative Salmon: In a class of its own. Aquaculture North America:

Footnotes From the Field: Advancing Plant Health in the Anthropocene Epoch

in 2019/Climate Change/Footnotes from the Field/Summer 2019

Marjorie Harris BSc, IOIA V.O.

CAN/GSB-32.310-2015: Amended March 2018

5.4.1 The main objective of the soil fertility and crop nutrient management program shall be to establish and maintain a fertile soil using practices that maintain or increase soil humus levels, that promote an optimum balance and supply of nutrients, and that stimulate biological activity within the soil.

We are in the Anthropocene Epoch.

Although the term Anthropocene Epoch, or the Human Epoch, has not yet received official approval as a recognized subdivision of geological time, in common jargon it refers to a new time epoch where human activities significantly impact and shift Earth’s geology and ecosystems. This includes climate changes due to the advent of agriculture, deforestation, and earthworm expansion, resulting in the increased release of carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Small but Mighty

In addition to agriculture contributing to deforestation, it also promoted the dominance and spread of earthworm populations. A study in the journal Nature Climate Change reports that earthworms are small but mighty in their impact on the climate. A meta-analysis of previous studies suggests the worms may actually increase soil outputs of two key greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide. The study found that the presence of earthworms appears to increase soil outputs of CO2 by 33 percent and of nitrous oxide by 42 percent, demonstrating the essential role worms exert in determining the greenhouse gas balances of soils globally. Although earthworms are largely beneficial to soil fertility, they do increase net soil greenhouse gas emissions and that influence is expected to increase in the decades to come.

Decent into Glaciation Triggered by Earth’s Orbital Variations

Milutin Milankovitch, a Serbian Mathematics professor, theorized and then proved that Earth’s periodic glaciations are triggered by variations in Earth’s orbit. Milankovitch calculated the cyclical changes in climate based only on Earth’s orbital variation in relationship to the Sun caused by the additive effects of Orbital Eccentricity (100,000 year cycle), Axial Tilt (41,000 year cycle), and Precession (23,000 year cycle). The results demonstrated that over the last million years the climate has been varying between long glacial periods and short warming periods creating a cyclical 25% temperature variation at 65o North over the 100,000 year Milankovitch cycle.

A leading expert in Climate Change, Dr. Dan Britt, Pegasus Professor of Astronomy and Planetary Sciences at the Department of Physics, University of Central Florida, has graphed out (Figure 1) the temperature divergence attributed to the beginning of the Anthropocene Epoch, starting 10,000+ years ago with the advent of agriculture, deforestation, and earthworm expansion and leading up to the 20th century with fossil fuel consumption. The graph in Figure 1 shows the Milanovitch prediction for a cooling trend heading toward a glaciation period. The diverging lines indicate the actual temperatures (trending upwards) versus the prediction (trending downwards). Dr. Britt spent part of his scientific career studying ancient ice cores to determine temperature conditions and can attest to the results he presents in his lectures and publications.

The Plant Health Pyramid

Fortunately, while agriculture, deforestation, and earthworms were releasing the first 50 percent of the atmosphere’s greenhouse gases, farmers and scientists were making advances in understanding the promoters of plant, soil, and ecosystem health.

An example of a leading advancer of plant and soil health is John Kempf and his Plant Health Pyramid method of crop production. John started the “Advancing Eco Agriculture” website as a platform to share plant health knowledge and it is worth checking out ( Kempf based his plant health approach on ideas put forward in a book written by Francis Chaboussou, Healthy Crops: A New Agricultural Revolution, published in 2005. Chaboussou proposes a theory of plant health that he calls ‘Trophobiosis’. The foundation concept is that insects and diseases are unable to use food sources comprised of complete proteins and carbohydrates.

According to John Kempf, “the degree of plant health and immunity is based on a plant’s ability to form structurally complete compounds such as carbohydrates and proteins. Complete carbohydrates, proteins, and lipids are formed by healthy plants with a fully functional enzyme system, which is dependent on trace mineral enzyme cofactors.” In order for plants to form complete compounds they need certain micronutrients along with environmental factors.

Figure 2: Source John Kempf, Advancing Eco Agriculture

Here is a thumbnail sketch description of John Kempf’s Plant Health Pyramid (also see Figure 2):

Phase #1: Complete Photosynthesis

Complete photosynthesis is the foundation of plant health and growth. As the plant harnesses the sun’s energy into sugars, the first sugars to form are simple monosaccharides. As the plant secures more resources they can produce complex sugars such as cellulose, pectin, and starches, and the plants become more resistant to soil born pathogens. John’s experience shows that soil pathogens decrease as a problem when the plants are fully and actively photosynthesizing.

Phase #2: Complete Protein Synthesis

During phase 2 the plant translocates up to 70% of energy production in the form of sugars to the roots and the surrounding rhizosphere microbial and fungal communities. In exchange for plant sugars the rhizosphere communities deliver essential trace minerals and nutrients from the soil that the plant uses to make enzyme cofactors that are then used in the manufacture of complete carbohydrates and proteins.

If the plant does not have access to these essential trace minerals it cannot make the catalytic enzymes that change single amino acids into complete proteins. Kempf says that insects target plants that have lots of free amino acids (incomplete proteins), because they have simple digestive systems. If plants have been able to transform the amino acids into complete proteins then they are not susceptible to insects with simple digestive systems such as whiteflies, cabbage loopers, corn earworm, alfalfa weevil, or tomato hornworm, to name a few.

Phase #3: Increased Lipid Synthesis

Most conventional crops do not develop past phase 2 development. This where providing the essential trace mineral needs of the plant pays off in the development of increased immunity. By now the plant has enough energy production that sugars can be converted to fats (lipids) and used to make stronger cell membranes. Through Kempf’s field experience it appears that plants with higher lipid content are more resistant to airborne pathogens such as powdery mildews, rust, blights, and more.

Phase #4: Increased Secondary Metabolites (Protective Polyphenols)

As the plant continues to develop under optimum trace mineral conditions, the sugars continue to convert to fats, which can then be modified into complex oil chains called polyphenols. These complex polyphenol chains are the protective essential oils, which include terpenoids, bioflavinods, carotenoids, tannins, and more. At this level of immunity with polyphenol production, plants can resist insects with more complex digestive systems such as beetles. The polyphenols also possess anti-fungal and anti-bacterial properties.

Lipids are also exuded through the roots into the rhizosphere. The soil rhizosphere fungi uses these lipids to form the macro molecules of soil stabilizing humic substances. The formation of humic substances in turn increases the bioavailability of trace minerals and nutrients from the soil to the plants, and optimum soil and plant health balance has been achieved.

In the Anthropcene Epoch, advances in understanding plant and soil nutrition are helping to hone the agricultural techniques required for optimum biomimicry practices to enhance soil and plant and health. Here’s a cheer for “Healthy Soil, Healthy Plants, and Healthy People” as we continue to manage food production wisely in the Age of Discovery in the Human Epoch.

Marjorie Harris, BSc, IOIA VO and Organophyte.

Feature image: Figure 1: Source: Dr. Dan Britt: Orbits and Ice Ages 2018. Edited to indicate the beginning of agriculture.

1. Britt, D. (2018). Orbits and Ice Ages: Climate During the Last Three Million Years. University of Central Florida.
2.  Lubbers, I.M., van Groenigen, K.J., Fonte, S.J., Six, J., Brussaard,L., van Groenigen, J.W. (2013). Greenhouse-gas emissions from soils increased by earthworms. Nature Climate Change: 3:187.
3. Morello, L. (2013). Earthworms Increase Soils’ Greenhouse Gas Emissions. Climate Central.
4. Kempf, J. (2016). Crop Health Transitions – Pest and disease-resistant crops. Advancing Eco Agriculture.

Footnotes from the Field: Climate Change

in Footnotes from the Field/Spring 2019

Are We on the Brink of an Ecological Armageddon?

Marjorie Harris BSc, IOIA V.O.

The United Nations’ 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Report identified that “biodiversity is an essential prerequisite for the maintenance of ecosystem services providing manifold benefits to human well-being.”

How is Climate Change Impacting the Biodiversity of our Planet’s Ecosystem?

Regional climate change hot spots have begun to undergo dramatic biodiversity reductions and, in some cases, ecosystem collapse due to temperature related food chain disruptions. Scientists in the field of phenology, the study of cyclic and seasonal natural phenomena relating to climate, plant, and animal life have found that rapid climate change is causing a decoupling of once synchronized light-sensitive cycles from temperature-sensitive cycles.

Slower shifts in climate over geological time frames are well recognized natural and cyclic phenomena. Climate studies have demonstrated that a climate shift 6,000 years ago in northern Africa converted the Sahara grassland savannahs to desert sands. Archeological evidence has found cave paintings in the desert showing mermaids and swimmers in the now-dry local lakes.

How Can We Know that Human Activities are Actually Contributing to an Increase in Global Temperatures?

As the Industrial Revolution was being propelled forward by the burning of fossil fuels, the Greenhouse Effect began building as those fossil fuels released greenhouse gases. The Industrial Revolution began in the 1760’s in Europe and had rooted in North America by the 1820’s.

Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations have risen by 39 percent and methane levels have risen to the highest concentrations in at least 650,000 years. These greenhouse gases prevent thermal radiation from leaving the Earth’s surface atmosphere with the ocean acting as a heat sink. The upper ocean layer’s heat content has increased significantly more in recent decades. As the ocean absorbs heat, waves, tides, and currents, move  that heat from warmer to cooler latitudes, and to deeper levels. Eventually this heat energy re-enters the land systems by melting ice shelves, evaporated water (rain), or by directly reheating the atmosphere. Heat energy stored in the ocean has a long life span—it can warm the planet for decades after it was absorbed.

Early oceanographers recorded ocean temperature data from 1872 to 1876 aboard the HMS Challenger. The ship sailed 69,000 nautical miles, recording 300 ocean temperature profiles at several depths. Fast forward to today’s Argo Project headed up by oceanographer Dr. Dean Roemmich. The Argo Project uses 3,000 free-drifting floats for long-term monitoring of global ocean temperatures and salinity every 10 days. In a recent scientific paper Dr. Roemmich reported the results, comparing today’s ocean temperatures to those taken by HMS Challenger’s crew. The study revealed an overall average temperature increase of 1.1 degrees Fahrenheit (0.59 degrees Celsius) at the ocean’s surface over the past 135 years.

Rising Ocean Surface Temperatures Directly Influence Global Weather Patterns

NASA scientists have developed computer simulations of historical weather data. These data described the ocean temperatures that created the weather conditions leading to the North American Dust Bowl from 1931 to 1939, considered to be the most significant meteorological event of the 20th century. NASA scientists found that the Atlantic Ocean surface temperature had risen by 1 degree Farenheit, and that the Pacific Ocean had experienced a cooling La Niña cycle. The combination triggered the drought weather patterns for the America Plains.

The Dust Bowl eroded 100 million acres into stripped and lacerated wastelands spanning Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico, with dust storms severely affecting a total of 27 states. Farms in the Dust Bowl lost an average of 480 tons of topsoil per acre. By 1940, the Dust Bowl conditions had prompted the relocation of 2.5 million people. The infamous Black Sunday storm on April 14, 1935 measured 200 miles across by 2,000 feet high with winds at 65 mph. The dust blocked the sunlight causing temperatures to drop 25 degrees Farenheit in one hour. During one severe two-hour period on Black Sunday, the violent storm stripped away twice as much soil as had been dug out over seven years to build the Panama Canal.

Hugh Hammond Bennett became known as the father of soil conservation in his work as founder and head of the US Soil Conservation Service. Bennett identified poor farming practices, deep plowing, denuded soil, removal of trees, and drought as the main causes of the Dust Bowl.

Under Bennett’s leadership, the US Soil Conservation Service initiated a 30-year program to restore and mitigate the damages of the Dust Bowl, including the replanting of denuded land. Bennett also set up programs to teach farmers better land management techniques such as leaving crop stubble in the field after harvest. Additionally, in the 1930’s, the US government purchased 11.3 million acres and replanted native grasslands. However, damage to the land was so severe, that by the year 2,000 some areas were still barren of growth and blowing dust.

Light and Temperature-Sensitive Ecosystem Cycles

Bennet stated, “the Kingdom of Nature is not a democracy; we cannot repeal natural laws when they become irksome. We have got to learn to conform to those laws or suffer severer consequences than we have already brought upon ourselves.”5

Here we are some 80 years after Bennett’s warning, and status updates report that climate change is moving forward unabated. An important factor in climate change is the disruption of ecosystem relationships by decoupling synchronized light-sensitive cycles from temperature-sensitive cycles.

Farmers are familiar with counting heat units to time the application of pest controls. This is because many insects—as well as reptiles, and amphibians—use temperature-sensitive cycles as cues for hatching emergence. Sex selection for some reptiles, such as crocodiles, is temperature based—the temperature of incubation will determine the sex of the offspring. This leaves many reptiles at-risk: an entire sex can be removed from the reproductive landscape in a few breeding seasons.

Phytoplankton communities are losing biodiversity in the face of higher ocean temperatures as natural selection is for more heat-tolerant groups. Phytoplankton make up only 0.2 percent of global primary producer biomass, yet they are responsible for about 50 percent of the world’s primary food production. In addition, phytoplankton are key components in the global carbon cycle. Reduction in the biodiversity of phytoplankton communities changes the primary producer profiles and reduces the resilience of the ocean ecosystem.

The concept of an Ecological Armageddon is emerging — Dr. CA Hallmann reports an 82 percent decline in flying insects at 63 protected sites in Germany, over a 27-year study period. Hallmann notes, “loss of insects is certain to have adverse effects on ecosystem functioning, as insects play a central role in a variety of processes, including pollination, herbivory and detrivory, nutrient cycling, and providing a food source for higher trophic levels such as birds, mammals, and amphibians. For example, 80 percent of wild plants are estimated to depend on insects for pollination, while 60 percent of birds rely on insects as a food source.”

In Puerto Rico’s Luquillo rainforest, researcher Bradford C. Lister found that biomass loss  increased from 10 to 60 times over the 30-year study period. Lister’s analysis revealed a synchronous decline in lizards, frogs, and birds that eat insects. Lister determined that the forest temperature had risen 2.0 degrees Celcius over the study period—a temperature change that prevented insect eggs from hatching, and reducing food supply for animals higher up the food chain.

Light-sensitive activities for mammals and birds include migration, breeding, and predation. As well, some plants are reliant on light-sensitive cues for growth stimulation.

For example, caribou populations in the Artic are in decline due to the decoupling of temperature and light-sensitive cycles. Pregnant caribou migrate to birthing grounds based on light cues to time their arrival with the emergence of nutrient-rich plant growth. However, due to rising artic temperatures, the plants are germinating earlier. When the pregnant caribou arrive to their feeding grounds, plant nutrition has already decreased—resulting in malnourished caribou mothers producing fewer calves. Another light-sensitive lifecycle example is the change in the Arctic mosquito cycle. Migrating birds rely on the larval Arctic mosquitos as a rich food source, but the mosquitos are hatching earlier under warmer temperatures. When birds arrive, the mosquitos are in their adult form, and the birds are without a source of food. The now unchecked mosquito population impacts the caribou lifecycle when caribou calves are predated to death by unusually gigantic swarms of blood-sucking adult mosquitos.

The butterfly effects of climate change on the intricacies of the planetary food web are only just emerging. Hopefully, we can adapt before an Ecological Armageddon occurs.

Marjorie Harris (BSc, IOIA VO) is an organophyte, consultant, and verification officer in BC. She offers organic nutrient consulting and verification services supporting natural systems.

Roemmich, D, Gould WJ, Gilson J. 2012. 135 years of global ocean warming between the Challenger expedition and the Argo Programme. Nature Climate Change. 2:425-428.  10.1038/nclimate1461
NASA Explains the Dust Bowl Drought:
Handy Dandy Dust Bowl Facts:
The Dust Bowl:
The Dust Bowl, an illustrated history, Duncan & Burns, 2012 (pages 160 – 162)
Climate Change: Ocean Heat Content:      understanding-climate/climate-change-ocean-heat-content
Temperature and species richness effects in phytoplankton communities.
Lister, B.C. Department of Biological Sciences, Rensselaer Polytechnic University, Troy, NY 12180
More than 75 percent decline over 27 years in total flying insect biomass in protected areas:
The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment 2005: was called for by United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan in 2000 in his report to the UN General Assembly, We the Peoples: The Role of the United Nations in the 21st Century.

Footnotes from the Field: Mother Earth is Heating Up

in 2019/Climate Change/Footnotes from the Field/Organic Standards/Pest Management/Winter 2019

BC Crop Adaptation & Diversification in Climate Change

Marjorie Harris BSc, IOIA V.O. P.Ag

I have stood on my back porch trying to imagine what a three kilometer high Cordilleran Ice sheet would have looked like here 12,000 years before the last big melt. It is estimated that people arrived in BC’s virgin landscape only 9,000 years ago.

Climate change on a geological time scale is undeniable. Long term climate change trends are difficult to observe from year to year and climate change over a lifetime may be imperceptible especially with a variety of shorter and longer climate cycles that can bring on their own periodic dramatic weather events.

Here in BC our usual climate patterns are regularly perturbed by El Nino, La Nina, and the Pacific Decadal Oscillation. The El Nino cycle fluctuates over three to seven years. During El Nino years inland temperatures tend to be warmer and drier with warmer coastal waters that push salmon stocks further north to colder water. La Nina years are characterized with colder inland temperatures with heavier winter snow packs and colder coastal waters. The Pacific Decadal Oscillation pattern shifts temperatures and precipitation over 20 to 30 year periods that correspond with dramatic shifts in salmon production.
We have now entered a new epoch of human induced climate change. Analysis of global climate data provides unequivocal evidence that worldwide average temperatures have risen significantly and at a more rapid pace then usually observed in geologic time frames. The effects of climate change are region specific and variable across the world. The effects are most pronounced in high latitude and high-altitude areas.

What are the predicted impacts of climate change on BC crop production, pest and disease burden, weed control, and water resources?

There has already been a measurable shift to warmer average temperatures year round throughout the province generally speaking. However, climate change impacts vary region to region. Warmer winter temperatures have been more pronounced in the far north. In the southern part of the province the growing season has lengthened. There will be more very hot days in summer and extended droughts with higher risks of fire with drier conditions.

Crop production: Key cash crops will lose viability to grow under new climate conditions. Growers will need to diversify in crop production to meet the new growing conditions. In the Okanagan region, longer warmer growing seasons favor red wine grape varieties over cooler temperature white and ice wine grape varieties. In the Okanagan wine producers are replacing grapevines for varietals that prefer more warmth.

Pest and disease burden: Milder winter temperatures allow a greater number of pests to survive overwintering, increasing the pest burden for the following season. Timing of pest control will need to be adjusted as pest life cycles respond to temperature increases. For strategic pest management increased pest surveillance will be crucial to prevention and management.

Pests will extend range to higher altitudes with warming trends. One example is the spread of the mountain pine beetle from north to south across the province under the influence of milder winters. Many invasive insects and disease vectors such as mosquitoes, ticks, and rodents, will be able to extend their geographical ranges.

For BC, a rare anthrax outbreak occurred in Fort St. John in October 2018, killing 13 bison. Rainy weather and warmer soil temperatures allowed the bacteria deep underground to migrate to the soil surface and become an infective agent.

Weed Control: It is predicted that invasive plant and weed species will expand their ranges with climate change impacts. Weeds with efficient seed dispersal systems will invade faster than weeds that rely on vegetative dispersal. Higher carbon dioxide levels may cause some weeds to grow more vigorously. Disturbed habitats and fields after drought will be more easily colonized; therefore, cover cropping will become more imperative.

Water management: Climate change is predicted to bring substantial changes to water resources. The type of precipitation is already observably shifting to more rain, intense rain events, and less winter snowpacks. Persistent droughts are becoming more common during the summer months.

Most of BC’s alpine glaciers are predicted to continue to retreat and disappear within the next 100 years. Warming spring temperatures coupled with reduced snowpacks will result in earlier springs freshets, reduced summer flows, and increased peak flows for many of BC’s watersheds.

What can we learn from the past: BC’s prehistoric climate records demonstrate that in previous centuries the province has experience more frequent severe droughts than have occurred in the past few decades, irrespective of climate change.

For the last 4,000 years the planet has actually been in a long cooling period. When key crops failed repeatedly, causing food shortages, people migrated to new locations and diversified crop production. Moving away to new lands is not a current option on our fully explored planet.

Anthropological Archaeologist Dr. Jade d’Alpoim Guedes conducted research into the rapid cooling periods of the last 5000 years and made some correlations to climate warming:

“The impacts of warming going forward are going to be quicker and greater, [than global cooling], and humanity has had 4,000 years to adjust to a cooler world,” d’Alpoim Guedes said. “With global warming these long-lasting patterns of adaptation will begin to change in ways that are unpredictable,” she said. “And there might not be the behavioral flexibility for this, given current politics around the world.”
Also mechanized, industrialized agriculture and global agricultural policy are pushing us toward mono-culture of crops, said d’Alpoim Guedes. “We need to move in the opposite direction instead. “Studies like ours show that bet-hedging and investing in diversity have been our best bets for adapting to climate change,” she said. “That is what allowed us to adapt in past, and we need to be mindful of that for our future, too.”

So, the question of the 11th hour is, can we as human beings cooperate together to manage ecosystems and agricultural food systems to adapt and diversify quickly enough to prevent ecosystem collapses and famines?

Marjorie Harris is an organophyte, agrologist, consultant, and verification officer in BC. She offers organic nutrient consulting and verification services supporting natural systems.

WSU Insider, Science and Technology:
d’Alpoin Guedes, J., Bocinsky, K. (2018). Climate change stimulated agricultural innovation and exchange across Asia. Science Advances, Vol. 4, No. 10.
From Impacts to Adaptation: Canada in a Changing Climate 2007

Footnotes from the Field: Intergenerational Soil Stewardship

in Fall 2018/Footnotes from the Field/Grow Organic/Land Stewardship/Organic Standards/Tools & Techniques
Onions by Moss Dance at Birds and Beans

Intergenerational Soil Stewardship: Our Only Hope?

Marjorie Harris BSc, IOIA V.O. P.Ag

Soil, specifically topsoil, is the foundation of life on this earth. Earth is the only planet with healthy fertile soil on it that we know of yet, in the whole of the universe. Fertile soil is a little-understood mixture of biology and geology whose potential only exists in the topsoil layer. The topsoil layer is composed of the topsoil itself and organic matter in various stages of mineralization and humus production. Degradation and erosion of the topsoil depletes soil fertility, restricting plant growth, vitality, and micronutrient content.

The theme for this month’s BC Organic Grower is: “Bioregionalism: building place based economies.” Agricultural philosopher Wendell Berry suggests that an agrarian economy is based on local adaptation of economic activity to the capacity of the land to sustain such activity.

This is a challenging idea because history shows us that farming as practised in the past and the present always causes topsoil degradation. Through the ages, soil degradation, or erosion, has steered the fate and course of human civilizations and ultimately caused the demise of those civilizations. This story has repeated itself throughout the world and in the history of every type of farming. In the words of Sir Winston Churchill, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” No greater historical comment can be made for agriculture: learn or be doomed. All farming societies exhausted their topsoils within 800 to 1700 years.

The Canadian Organic Standards speak to soil conservation and soil fertility specifically in the following sections:
The general principles of organic production in Annex 1:
1. Protect the environment, minimize soil degradation and erosion, decrease pollution, optimize biological productivity, and promote a sound state of health.
2. Maintain long-term soil fertility by optimizing conditions for biological activity within the soil.

Clause 5.4.3 Tillage and cultivation practices shall maintain or improve the physical, chemical and biological condition of soil, and minimize damage to the structure and tilth of soil, and soil erosion.

Principle of Health

Organic agriculture should sustain and enhance the health of soil, plants, animals, humans and the planet as one and indivisible.

We have run out of new lands to discover on planet Earth. In 1995, Dr. David Pimental of Cornell University calculated that we had already lost 30% of the arable land we were farming to soil erosion. With the advent of chemical and mechanical agriculture the soil erosion problem has increased a hundred-fold in areas. As an example, in the past 150 years, one-half the fertile topsoil of Iowa has been lost to erosion.

Topsoil is a strategic and underappreciated resource. Soil can be conserved, made, and lost and it is the balance of these factors that determines the soils fertility. How we manage the soil resource in our generation will affect generations to come. As long as soil erosion continues to exceed soil production, it is only a matter of time before agriculture fails to support Earths humanity.

What Can We Learn from the Trials and Errors of Our Ancestors?

Çatalhöyük, Anatolia (modern Turkey) was home to a Neolithic farming civilization that lasted around a thousand years starting about 7500 BC. Scientists have studied skeletal remains which have provided a highly informative record of human health. From the skeletal health record they have been able to divide this civilization into three distinct health time periods: Early, Middle and Late. During the Middle period the civilization reached its peak in population and health, and then as soil fertility was depleted the human skeletal health parameters demonstrated decline. By the end of the Late period 52% of human births resulted in infant mortality before the age of two months. Similar skeletal health studies have been conducted on the remains of other farming civilizations globally with outcome of human health declining in parallel with topsoil and soil fertility depletion, supporting the assumption that human health is interdependent on topsoil retention and soil fertility.

Dr. David R. Montgomery succinctly identifies the problem and a potential solution in his book Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations: “Sustaining our collective well being requires prioritizing society’s long term interest in soil stewardship; it is an issue of fundamental importance to our civilization. We simply cannot afford to view agriculture as just another business because the economic benefits of soil conservation can be harvested only after decades of stewardship, and the cost of soil abuse is borne by all.”

What Does a New Sustainable Agriculture Ethic Require from Us?

In Dr. David Montgomery’s more recent publication “Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life,” he outlines solutions to soil conservation and topsoil rebuilding techniques he has witnessed applied in the field around the world. He identifies the main culprit of soil erosion in agriculture as the invention of the plow. The plow breaks the soil structure and exposes the underground community of biota to the surface. “The plow is the villain that set the seeds for soil degradation. Only deserts have bare earth and Nature tends to clothe herself in plants.”

Another challenge is that during one generation a farmer can seldom see the effects of topsoil erosion unless a dramatic natural weather event sweeps the soil away. During day to day farming it is difficult to ascertain the minimal yet additive effects of traditional tillage techniques. Fallow land tillage is a traditional technique that leads to desertification and needs to be abandoned and replaced with topsoil preserving methods. Topsoil conservation and rebuilding requires the focused consciousness of Intergenerational Soil Stewardship to guide agricultural sustainability.

Soil is in a Symbiotic Living Relationship with Plants

When plants are actively photosynthesizing they release 30% to 40% of the sugars, carbon compounds, and proteins they manufacture through their roots into the root rhizosphere. The root exudes these nutrients to feed the underground community of fungi and microbes in exchange for micronutrients from fungi and microbial metabolites that act as growth stimulators and plant health promoters.

When plants are fed synthetic N, P, K they grow big on top of the ground but do not invest in growing a big root system and do not deliver as much nutritious root exudates to feed the underground microbial and fungi communities. As a result the plant does not reap the benefits of vitality factors and micronutrients. The plants overall health is less and the plant tissue has demonstratively less micronutrient content to pass on up the food chain. Micronutrient studies demonstrate that under conventional agriculture the plants have lost between 25% to 50% of their micronutrient content in the past 50 years.

The solution to successful topsoil building Dr. Montgomery observed while touring farms around the world required three things to happen at once: no till planting techniques, cover cropping, and adding organic matter to the soil. Dr. Montgomery has coined the method Conservation Agriculture and the methods can be applied in both conventional and organic farms—because when it comes to soil conservation and restoration, everybody needs to get on board.

Principles of Conservation Agriculture:

1. Minimal or no disturbance/direct planting of seeds (e.g., no till)
2. Permanent ground cover: retain crop residues and include cover crop in rotations
3. Diverse crop rotations: to maintain soil fertility and break up pathogen carryover
4. Livestock assisting in topsoil building: mimic bison grazing, move cattle in a tight herd to intensive graze (high disturbance), and move frequently to produce low frequency grazing.

Benefits of Conservation Agriculture, after a short transition period of 2 to 3 years to allow soil organic matter to build fertility:

1. Comparable or increased yields
2. Greatly reduced fossil fuel and pesticide use
3. Increased soil carbon and crop resilience
4. Higher farmer profits

“This is not a question of low tech organic versus GMO & agro-tech….this is about ‘how to apply an understanding of soil ecology to the applied problem of increasing and sustaining crop yields in a post-oil environment’.”

“Agriculture has experienced several revolutions in historical times: the yeoman’s revolution based on relearning Roman soil husbandry and the agrochemical and green revolutions based on fertilizer and agrotechnology. Today, the growing adoption of no-till and organic methods is fostering a modern agrarian revolution based on soil conservation. Whereas past agricultural revolutions focused on increasing crop yields, the ongoing one needs to sustain them to ensure the continuity of our modern global civilization. The philosophical basis of the new agriculture lies in treating soil as a locally adapted biological system rather than a chemical system.”

Intergenerational Soil Stewardship: Society on a global scale based on an agrarian economy adapted to its bioregion dedicated to topsoil conservation and restoration and the development of soil fertility.

Marjorie Harris is an organophyte, agrologist, consultant, and verification officer in BC. She offers organic nutrient consulting and verification services supporting natural systems.

1. Montgomery, D. (2007). Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations. University of California Press. Montgomery, D. (2017). Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life. W. W. Norton & Company.
3. Pimental, D., Burgess, M. (2013). Soil Erosion Threatens Food Production. Agriculture, 3(3), 443-463; doi: 10.3390/agriculture3030443
4. Montgomery, D. (2014). Soil erosion and agricultural sustainability. PNAS. 104 (33) 13268-13272;

Footnotes from the Field: Celebrating the Flight of the Bumblebee

in 2018/Footnotes from the Field/Land Stewardship/Organic Standards/Summer 2018

Marjorie Harris BSc, IOIA V.O. P.Ag

When I think of the ‘wholeness’ of a bioregional ecosystem and imagine the inner workings to identify which biological organisms could have the greatest influence on the entire system, nothing seems to compete with the influential power of the domesticated honey bee.

This industrious pollinator flies great distances to gather nectar and pollen. The Canadian Organic Standards (COS) Clause 7.1.10 recognizes the prodigious flying capacity of the honey bee by requiring apiaries to be protected by a three kilometre buffer zone from pesticides, GMO crops, sewage sludge, and other environmental contaminants. I decided to calculate just how big of an area a three kilometre radius would cover—an astounding 28.27 square kilometers! Wow! The domesticated honey bee’s influence in a bioregion extends over a huge pollination territory.


CAN/CGSB-32.310 7.1.10 Location of hives
Where sources or zones of prohibited substances are present, that is, genetically engineered crops or environmental contamination, apiaries shall be protected with a buffer zone of 3 km (1.875 mi.).

CAN/CGSB-32.310 7.1.7 When bees are placed in wild areas, impact on the indigenous insect population shall be considered.

In stark contrast to the honey bee’s huge domain is the relatively small realm of influence the humble bumble bee commands. There are well over 450 native bee species in British Columbia and 45 of those are bumble bees.

The bumble bee is the only other social bee that makes honey. Bumble bee colonies are very small containing between 50 to 200 bees. Seventy percent of the colonies are formed by ground nesters, while others nest in cavities of dead wood or pithy stems.

The average bumble bee species will only travel 100 to 200 m from the home nest to collect nectar and pollen. The average domain of pollination influence for a bumble bee is between 0.031 km2 and 0.13 km2. Putting this all into perspective, for each honey bee colony’s influence domain of 28.27 km2 there could be between 200 to 900 humble bumble bee ground nesting colonies competing for many of the same nectar and pollen resources!

Frisky bumblebee. Credit: Gilles Gonthier

The good news for bumble bees is that many of them are specially designed to harvest nectar and pollen from native flowers that honey bees can’t access. The bad news is that native bee populations are in decline due to loss of native foraging habitat, pesticides, and mechanized farming destroying nests by tilling the soil.

Social bee colonies form ‘super organisms,’ with all individuals working for one home. The honey bee’s ‘super organism’ even exceeds in bioregional influence the largest organism on planet Earth, a honey fungus that extends its reach over 10.36 km2 of the Malheur National Forest in the Blue Mountains of Oregon. Honey fungus is a plant parasite that manages its domain by selecting which plants live within its territory. The fertilization by pollination of plants by the bee has a similar selection effect on the ecosystem. By geographic area, one domestic honeybee hive has three times the bioregional influence of the largest organism on earth.

COS clause 7.1.7 recognizes that imported domestic honey bees have an impact on the indigenous insect populations. I would say that even though the vast majority of farmers cannot qualify to produce organic honey themselves, it should be recognized that the conventional production of honey is having a major impact on our native pollinators. Taking the lead from clause 7.1.7, we can conscientiously strive to protect and provide forage habitat and safe nesting sites for the humble bumble bee and other native pollinators.

Brown-belted Bumble Bee (Bombus griseocollis). Credit: Andrew C
Brown-belted Bumble Bee (Bombus griseocollis). Credit: Andrew C

By providing forage habitat and safe nesting sites for bumble bees, we are having a direct influence on the health and wealth of our home bioregional ecosystem. As an environmentally conscious and active community, we can have a positive impact in our bioregion by providing for our indigenous insect pollinators as we mobilize ourselves to address the environmental needs of these indigenous insects.

There are so many delicious wild berries that need the bumble bee. The flowers on these berries are enclosed so it takes a bumble bee’s specialized long “tongue” to get to the plant’s nectar. As the bumble bee ‘buzzes’ on these flowers the muscles it uses for flying releases the flower pollen and sticks to its long body bristles to be transferred to other flowers.

Buffer zones are an excellent starting place to plant native vegetation, trees, shrubs, and flowers that will become oases of survival for the humble bumble bees.
If you need further inspiration, think about the near extinction of the native bee pollinator for the vanilla orchid, which produces vanilla beans, the shiny green orchid bee. All commercial vanilla bean operations must now employ hand pollination!

Another shocker in the news is that Walmart and other interested corporations have been patenting designs for robotic pollinators. I’d rather keep the robots out of the pollination equation, especially since we can set aside buffer zones and wild areas and gradually restore unfragmented sections of land devoted to a wide diversity of native pollinator vegetation, undisturbed nesting locations, and overwintering sites for bumble bee queens.

Check out the link below for a library of seasonal listings for pollinator plants to build your pollinator gardens. Celebrate the amazing bumble bee!

Marjorie Harris is an organophyte, agrologist, consultant, and verification officer in BC. She offers organic nutrient consulting and verification services supporting natural systems.

Feature photo: Bombus Impatiens. Credit: Katja Schulz





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