The bugs are winning the Bt fight

Twenty years ago, when I was still a staff reporter at the local, daily newspaper, I interviewed a professor of agriculture at the University of Guelph. At the end of the interview about a certain issue of interest to local farmers, I mentioned I was also a small-scale market gardener who tried to use organic methods. They included the use of bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) to control the caterpillar stage of certain lepidopteran (moth and butterflies) insects that feed on corn, potatoes, tomatoes and other crops. I told her I had recently learned U.S. government Environmental Protection (EPA) regulators had approved the genetic engineering of Bt with corn and wondered what she thought.

I will never forget her comment in response to my question: “Nature abhors a vacuum,” she said, adding “sooner or later” the bugs will develop resistance.

Over the years since then as the use of Bt hybrid corn, and other Bt genetically modified crop seeds, has steadily and greatly increased in the U.S. especially, and in Canada and 16 countries, I have wondered when what she said would happen.

I got the answer a few days ago when I found the latest issue of the Ontario farm-information newspaper, Farmtario, in my mailbox: it has already started to happen — a couple of years ago, in fact; and government regulators in the U.S. and Canada are now considering regulatory changes in hopes of stopping or slowing down the advance of Bt-resistant super bugs. The use of ‘super’ there is my choice of word, because as far as I’m concerned that’s what it amounts to if Bt is no longer useful as an organic solution.

The Farmtario article was perhaps not strictly speaking ‘breaking news’ and therefore worthy of front-page coverage, other than a teaser that referred to an article on Page 10 about ‘The challenge with Bt.’

And it was written in a way that would make it difficult for non-farmer consumers to understand what it’s about. I’m not saying that’s deliberate. And after all, Farmtario is aimed at farmers, so presumably there’s apparently an assumption they know what the jargon like “Bt hybrid corn” means. But, it’s not a hybrid in the traditional sense of cross-breeding different species of the same type of plant to create a new hybrid variety. That’s been done for thousands of years, not 20. “Bt hybrid corn” is misnomer camouflage to hide what it really is: Bt Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) corn.

The “challenge” referred to by the Farmtario article is rooted in the fact more than 90 percent of corn grown in the U.S. is ‘Bt hybrid.’ The same is true of Bt hybrid cotton. Evidence of growing resistance to Bt ‘traits’ has been reported in recent years and recently confirmed, according to an EPA discussion paper regarding proposed changes to regulations now being considered. They include “compliance assurance” from growers and annual reporting.

The EPA says changes are needed to bring the growth of resistant insect pests under control; otherwise, “if resistance continue to proliferate, Bt corn and cotton could be lost to farmers as tools to address pest problems.”

Meanwhile, similar concerns have been raised in Canada, since the first resistance to Bt corn, involving a European corn borer infestation was confirmed in Nova Scotia last year. “This is the first report in the world of the European corn borer (ECB) developing resistance to a genetically engineered trait used to confer insect resistance. It is also the first report in Canada of any insect pest developing resistance to a genetically engineered trait. The development of resistance in other insect pests targeted by Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) traits in corn has been observed in the U.S., South Africa and Brazil,” the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN) reported in June, 2019.

“This is an important reminder that nature can adapt to and overcome genetically engineered traits,” said CBAN’s Lucy Sharratt.

That’s putting it mildly. Say what you want about the ethics of modern genetic engineering, or modification, but from my point of view, the real tragedy here is the loss of Bt as a bona fide, organic control of the damage European corn borer, corn earworm and corn rootworm can cause.

Bacillus Thuringiensis occurs naturally in soil. It poses no risk for human consumption. It has been used by market-garden farmers and gardeners for many years. I have used a liquid concentrate sold under the name BTK for 30 years with excellent results. I have found it is indispensable, to avoid damage rendering the corn unsaleable and repugnant. But I try in my modest way to take a responsible, Integrated Pest Management (IPM) approach. That always involves checking for corn borer when the corn plants are about half a metre high, and then unwinding the whorl of a few and carefully looking for the tiny larvae. If none, I don’t spray. With corn earworm, wait until the silk has begun to form before spraying. Wait another two weeks before spraying again. That’s usually enough.

As for the massive, widespread use of Bt GMO corn, and the subsequent appearance of resistant bugs, it should have been obvious what was going to happen when it was approved.

Hopeful Garlic, currents of great mystery in troubled times

My garlic bedded down under a blanket of straw mulch for the winter

All garden crops are hopeful: you prepare the soil carefully, make sure the temperature is warm enough for germination, then plant your seeds or starter plants at a suitable depth with sufficient water. And you hope, with a certain level of confidence that comes from a combination of experience and trying your best to do things right, that in a few weeks or months various crops will grow and flourish. Doing the necessary work through the spring, summer and fall growing season to help nurse the seeds and plants along is also part of what you do to play your role in turning hope into nutritious reality.

But garlic is surely the most hopeful of crops. The care the gardener takes, for market or family, as described above is still as important. That begins with weed control through the summer in that patch of ground where garlic will be planted. In southern Ontario that most normally happens in the fall when the soil has cooled sufficiently.

I’ve heard that one of my neighbors, an excellent gardener, had good results this year planting garlic in early spring when the soil was still cool. A cool soil temperature is regarded as key to encouraging each planted clove to grow and develop a fully formed, multi-clove garlic bulb.

I’ve had good results planting garlic in mid to late October, and even into November: the root system needs some time to get established before winter freeze-up. In the past few years the climate-change instability of the Jet Stream has brought extremely cold arctic air down to North America’s Great Lakes region for many days or weeks at a time, as cold as -30 degrees Celsius, or colder. I worried about that last year, especially because extreme fluctuations in temperature also brought thaws that left the ground where garlic was planted uncovered by a blanket of snow and vulnerable to the next deep freeze. So, this year, I decided to go ‘by the book’ and mulched my 25 rows of planted garlic with straw. And that was despite one knowledgeable old-timer who insisted it wasn’t necessary. I took note of the fact I planted the garlic this year in a location more exposed to the prevailing west winds. And better safe than sorry, I heard 2,000 planted garlic cloves say. I followed their advice.

So, Azores. Georgian Fire, Persian Star, Bogatyr, and ‘my own’ Purple Stripe are, I hope, safely bedded down for what I expect will be a hard, cold or colder, Canadian winter.

I’ve done what I can. The rest is up to them — the garlic, I mean – and whatever impact the fates or spirits may have on their well-being.

Never doubt, my children, there are great mysteries moving through the earth, up into the clouds, the stars above, and beyond, that help to determine, for good or ill, the fate of us all on this little blue-green jewel of a planet in trouble. It’s a delicate matter, but what we do or don’t do, say or don’t say, can shift the fragile balance of fate and the future one way or the other. So, let us hope, by all means.

And then there is this:

Have courage, I tell my hopeful garlic.

You too, have courage, they tell me back.

And yes, I talk to my plants.

A conversation with the sun, revisited

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(Not much has changed since I first published this two years ago in a lot of ways. Old age continues to creep up on me, but I give myself a push and go outside to plant some garlic, or otherwise plant seeds. But I must confess to feeling somewhat less hopeful about the state of the world, driven downward by an increasing level of anger and hatred on social media and other forms of public discourse, and made worse by unprincipled, political opportunism pandering to the worst in human nature. It is, I confess, discouraging, even depressing. I find myself having to turn it all off for a while and increasingly find solace in solitude. And yet I am a social creature, and fundamentally believe each of us in our own way has a responsibility to pay attention, think carefully about what’s happening, and do what we can in a loving way, to help make it better. And then I think it can begin in a modest way, with a simple, personal expression of appreciation for the gift of life, and what the moment we’re in now — the only one we’ve truly got — may bring us: wonder and surprise in so many forms, including an unexpected visitor from nearby or the other side of the world who has a story, their story, to tell. Open your heart to them, I tell myself, and your eyes.)

Another cloudy day in late October with the front field to cultivate before it starts to rain, as forecast. I’m out beside Mr. Massey Too, checking his fluid levels before connecting the cultivator, when I get that feeling, you know, like somebody’s looking at me. So, I look up right where that feeling is coming from, just above the treetops of some tall spruce, and there it is, the sun – a faint light in the clouds, so faint that I can look right at it, face to face, as it were.

I get the sense the son wants to tell me something; so, I say, “What? What’s up? What’s on your mind?” Continue reading

The Hawk is watching

I saw it again this morning as the dogs and I came back from our after-breakfast walk. Had it been watching us from above, I wonder only now? We had just turned down into our long driveway and there it was, slowly, silently, with a seemingly effortless motion of its wings flying easily through the light drizzle over the front field just off to our right. It flew ahead of us, heading northwest toward the big maples and beyond toward the forest, out of sight.

I knew right away it was the same great bird, a hawk, I had seen a few days before. That was also during our walk, but just as we were about to step through the back door. Something made me look up, and there it was circling overhead, also at about treetop height.

That was a blustery, variably cloud and sun morning, a strong wind from the west making the still leaf-laden branches roar. The bird was not moving its wings; it didn’t have to: the wind let it soar, its outstretched, perfectly aerodynamic wings sensitive to every nuance of the air.

There was joy in what the bird was doing, and, inadvertently perhaps, or deliberately, showing me. And so, I imagined it might be a sort of dance, slow and elegant, and – what’s the word? – dignified comes to mind now.  I mean no offence at all to the Ravens who made their home-nest in the barn this past spring, none at all: I love them, and hope they stay, helping in their way to keep the old barn standing. They soar too, with an occasional flapping, and a raucous “croak” now and then back and forth in their social, family way.

A recent view here at Cathedral Drive Farm in early September, 2020, the forest trees still laden with leaves. A family of ravens gain entry to the barn through that space below the roof to the right. They were still spending most of their time in the forest when this photo was taken by a friend; but I hope they will nest again next spring in the barn where they have made an impressive, and very big, nest.

But the hawk was silent and alone as it wheeled and soared in the wind, working its way slowly west and carefully searching the land below for anything of interest..

So, now I count the hawk as my friend, and the Ravens too. And the bear I saw cross the trail several hundred yards in front of me this summer, and the other unnamed creatures who make their presence known one way or another in the forest and the tall grass in the nature-reserve. regenerating fields. And even here – where I keep a portion of the land tilled for gardening, but let the milkweed live on its own terms for the sake of the Monarchs when they come back again next year – life thrives.

Next year I will scatter even more buckwheat for the bees and other pollinators that have found a happy refuge far from vast fields of mono-cropping.

And so, I am surrounded in sky and land and live with many friends.

I hope that’s what brings the Hawk here, good feelings rising from below.

Tomorrow morning when the dogs and I go on our morning rock to the touchstone, I will put my hand on it and pray that I will never again in any way betray that trust.

On the flowering of potatoes, the crimes of tyrants, and your comforting voice

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Rows of flowering potato plants, July 1, 2020. Those are staked tomato plants in the foreground.

The humble potato has its moment of floral glory.

Two types of well-sprouted tubers I planted around the first of May have overcome unseasonably cold temperatures through much of that month, then drought in June, and are now looking quite healthy thank you, despite current drought conditions.

Perhaps in defiance, both are showing pretty, blue flowers. Usually that’s a clue to the colour of the potatoes taking shape in the ground. But not in the case of the four rows on the left where a well-known, red-skinned potato with white flesh is growing. Continue reading

“Blast” investigation narrows down

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At the end of Cathedral Drive about the same time the Earth moved

The “blast’ that took place in the Hope Bay area north of Wiarton on Friday, December 13 is now solely in the hands of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry because that is the ministry responsible for quarry regulations, says a spokesperson for the other ministry initially involved in a joint investigation. Continue reading

Quarry “blast” investigation underway

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The tremor from a blast north of Wiarton was felt as far as Lion’s Head

Officials of two Ontario ministries that oversee operations of pits and quarries in Ontario are investigating an apparent explosion in a quarry north of Wiarton on the Bruce Peninsula late last Friday evening.

The incident was initially described as a “small” earthquake by Natural Resources Canada which monitors seismic activity. The tremor lasting several seconds was reported by the federal department as registering 2.1 on the Richter scale normally used to describe the magnitude of earthquakes. It was described by the federal agency as being about 14 kilometres north of Wiarton in the Hope Bay area. It was felt by numerous people from Cape Croker, northeast of Wiarton, to the village of Lion’s Head about halfway up the peninsula. Continue reading

Alberta’s American heritage and the threat to Canadian national unity

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The official municipal flag of the city of Lethbridge, Alberta, a version of the flag American whiskey traders flew over Fort Whoop-up before 1874

Winter has come relatively early here at Hope Ness, as elsewhere in this part of Canada, from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic. It came much earlier on the Canadian prairies, just as farmers were taking in the harvest; and even on Canada’s Pacific coast, normally still quite balmy in mid-autumn.

Meanwhile, another big chill has gripped Canada: a serious threat to national unity in the wake of the apparently divisive results of the recent federal election. Continue reading

Two smallish-type poems

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“The man who invented time was a fool.” Dan, circa 1961, the village cafe, Toronto

Waiting

A few dark grapes, some cheese, a bit of bread;

An ear, or more, of just-picked sweet corn.

It is enough

For now.

 

Sun going down

Last pick of late corn,

Sun going down in the west.

Delicious, as always.

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The real ‘peaches and cream.” Sweet enough.

 

“May you live in interesting times”

The origins of that now very relevant and ironic old saying are not clear,  though it’s known in English as “the Chinese curse.” However, no actual Chinese source has ever been found.

The Chinese are indeed an interesting people in their own right, as the world well knows, now that “the sleeping giant,” as Napoleon called China, has been awakened. And by that, I mean “interesting” in its most obvious non-ironic meaning..

At any event, the saying often comes to my mischievous mind to describe the times we’re in, especially since the fateful American presidential election of 2016. Continue reading