Crop diversity declining as world’s large, industrial farms look more alike, researchers find

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VANCOUVER—Large, industrial farms around the world are starting to look more alike, and it’s putting both the environment and food security at risk, new research from the University of Toronto Scarborough has found.

Currently, just four crops — soybeans, wheat, rice and corn — are grown on almost half the world’s agricultural lands, while more than 150 other crops are grown on the rest, according to the study.

Currently, just four crops — soybeans, wheat, rice and corn — are grown on almost half the world’s agricultural lands, while more than 150 other crops are grown on the rest, according to the study.
Currently, just four crops — soybeans, wheat, rice and corn — are grown on almost half the world’s agricultural lands, while more than 150 other crops are grown on the rest, according to the study.  (Max Whittaker / Toronto Star)

This is a concerning trend, said Jane Rabinowicz, a coexecutive director of USC Canada, a non-profit focused on agricultural biodiversity.

“It’s an indicator of vulnerability,” Rabinowicz said, because “the more diversity you have the more protected you are, for example, against a certain pest.”

These four crops, however, tend to be grown as large monocultures, where a single crop covers a large swath of land, often with high levels of chemicals harmful to the environment.

Adam Martin, an ecologist at the University of Toronto Scarborough and the lead author behind the study recently published in the journal PLOS One, agrees declining diversity is a problem.

“If the world’s farms start to become more homogenous, the expectation is that more parts of the world are going to be susceptible to the same types of pests or disease outbreaks or other environmental fluctuations that might impact those specific crops,” he said.

While the data Martin’s study used doesn’t show how much genetic variety there is within the types of crops planted — different varieties of corn, for example — he said previous research points to issues with a lack of diversity in genetic lineages as well.

There hasn’t been a mass loss of wheat, soybeans, rice or corn yet, Martin said.

But it could have catastrophic impacts if it happens. Those crops represent a major component of the calories consumed by people.

Martin’s study is based on an analysis of more than 50 years of data from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, which captured changes in the crops being grown in different regions between 1961 and 2014.

Though crop diversity is declining at a global scale, Martin found it has increased on a regional scale since the early ’60s — largely because more areas in the world started growing the same things.

In North America, for instance, 93 different crops are now grown on large industrial farms compared to 80 different crops in the ’60s, he said.

That finding is more consistent with the trend Ron Bonnett, president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, has seen in Canada over the last few decades.

“If you take Western Canada, for instance, at one time it was predominantly wheat that was growing there. Now there’s a number of different crops,” Bonnett said.

Today, farmers may have a crop of wheat alongside peas, lentils or canola, he said.

"If the world's farms start to become more homogenous, the expectation is that more parts of the world are going to be susceptible to the same types of pests or disease outbreaks or other environmental fluctuations that might impact those specific crops," says Adam Martin, the lead author of a new study on crop diversity.
« If the world’s farms start to become more homogenous, the expectation is that more parts of the world are going to be susceptible to the same types of pests or disease outbreaks or other environmental fluctuations that might impact those specific crops, » says Adam Martin, the lead author of a new study on crop diversity.  (IVAN PISARENKO/AFP/Getty Images)

Bonnett added that farmers often try to switch up their crops on an annual basis because it helps improve soil quality and keep weeds under control. They’re also quick to adapt when a new crop variety comes out that may be less susceptible to problematic pests or diseases, he said.

But it’s on the smaller farms where most of the crop diversity lives, according to Rabinowicz.

That diversity has benefits for nutrition and the farm environment. Rabinowicz said diverse crops can attract different pollinators, for example.

She added that crop diversity isn’t just something to conserve; it is also created as new plant varieties are developed — work that farmers are actively doing today.

For a long time there has been a heavy focus on industrial farming, she said, but we are seeing the “cracks in that model.”

“We’ve seen impacts on human health, we’ve seen collapse of pollinator populations, we’ve seen environmental impacts,” she said.

For instance, there have been major concerns about the impact of neonicotinoids, a type of pesticide commonly applied to corn and soybean crops, on pollinators such as honeybees. Agricultural runoff has been cited as a major cause behind blue-green toxic algae in Lake Erie. And a years long research project by scientists in the U.S. has linked pesticides to health problems in the children of farm works, as reported by the New York Times.

Moving forward, Rabinowicz said, she wants to see more diversity, not just in crops but in the models of farming more broadly.

“Diversity is a good thing,” she said, calling it “the foundation of resilience in agriculture.”

Ainslie Cruickshank is a Vancouver-based reporter covering the environment. Follow her on Twitter: @ainscruickshank

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Norwegian musicians release ‘Moose Truce’ in battle of world’s tallest moose

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Just when you thought the battle of Mac the Moose and Storelgen couldn’t get any more entertaining — Moose Truce was released.


READ MORE:
Mac the Moose weighs in on the battle to reclaim his title as ‘world’s tallest moose’

Composed by VIMARIDA and Ganic and produced by Jonas Holteberg Jensen, the song highlights Moose Jaw’s fight to reclaim the title of the world’s tallest moose and the call for a peaceful solution.

“We wanted to do something funny and we hope that people understand the humor in it,” said Adam Bielek, VIMRIDA guitarist and manager.

“We love Canada and we hope that this case can connect people from Canada and Norway.”

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Linda Otnes Henriksen, deputy mayor of Stor-Elvdal, called for a “moose truce” about two weeks ago.

An article published in Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet on Feb. 1 said Henriksen had reached out to Moose Jaw Mayor Fraser Tolmie about possibly visiting the Canadian town and reaching an agreement on building up Saskatchewan’s Mac the Moose to the same height as Storelgen.


READ MORE:
Norway seeking ‘moose truce’ in battle for world’s tallest moose

The epic battle was sparked by the hosts of YouTube’s the Justin & Greg Show, who pointed out that Mac was dethroned by a mere 30 centimetres.

Canada’s Moosehead Breweries recently donated $25,000 towards the Mac the Moose fund run by the City of Moose Jaw and Tourism Moose Jaw.

A GoFundMe page has also raised close to $13,000.

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‘Fun to beat Canada’: artist behind World’s Largest Moose weighs in on Canada-Norway moose debate

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Norwegian artist Linda Bakke has been a sculptor for decades.

When she started working in collaboration with the Norwegian State Road administration, it was for a traffic safety project. They wanted a 2-dimensional flat moose. She suggested a 3-dimensional sculpture instead.

« From my sketch proposal to the unveiling it took 5 years, » she said.

The actual creation of the stainless steel mirror-polished moose took six months.

Linda Bakke while Storelgen was in progress. Bakke said the silver moose is mirrored stainless steel. (Linda Bakke/website)

« I was researching on the internet what existed of large moose statues when I came across Mac The Moose, » she said. « It was decided to build a statue in a large dimension, so we could just as well step into making it the world’s largest. »

« And Canada is pretty much like Norway in many ways just that in Canada most things are bigger. You have a different and larger moose type as well, » she said. « So it would be a little fun to beat Canada in something. »

Bakke said she was surprised over the Moose Jaw response to no longer being the largest moose sculpture.

« I have to admit that I didn’t think about that Mac The Moose meant so much for the citizens of Moose Jaw, » she said. « So I have a bit of bad conscience for that. I’m sorry. »

Linda Bakke said Storelgen was meant to raise awareness for traffic safety in the area as the municipality of Stor-Elvdal has Norway’s third highest moose population. (Linda Bakke/website)

Although even if Moose Jaw were to make Mac the Moose bigger by larger antlers, a hat or other means, it looks like Norway would take the lead again before long.

« We are looking into building a much bigger one [moose statue], 20 meter high, in gold, » she said.

Linda Bakke said making sculptures « is that thing that makes me the most excited. » (Submitted by Linda Bakke)

Bakke said the 20 meter high gold moose statue is being researched right now to understand the cost and it would go in the same general area as Storelgen.

Bakke said the silver Storelgen sculpture was different than some other ones she’s made since it’s meant to draw attention to road safety.

She said it was to draw attention to the moose in the area, act as a reference point for people between Oslo and Trondheim, let people stretch their legs and be an identity symbol as the municipality of Stor-Elvdal has Norway’s third highest moose population. 

« The accident statistics show that there has been a drastic decline in accidents and deaths in connection with the measures, » Bakke said. « That feels very good as an artist to contribute to. »

« To manifest sculptures is that thing that makes me the most excited. »

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‘Fun to beat Canada’; artist behind World’s Largest Moose weighs into Canada-Norway moose debate

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Norwegian artist Linda Bakke has been a sculptor for decades.

When she started working in collaboration with the Norwegian State Road administration, it was for a traffic safety project. They wanted a 2-dimensional flat moose. She suggested a 3-dimensional sculpture instead.

« From my sketch proposal to the unveiling it took 5 years, » she said.

The actual creation of the stainless steel mirror-polished moose took six months.

Linda Bakke while Storelgen was in progress. Bakke said the silver moose is mirrored stainless steel. (Linda Bakke/website)

« I was researching on the internet what existed of large moose statues when I came across Mac The Moose, » she said. « It was decided to build a statue in a large dimension, so we could just as well step into making it the world’s largest. »

« And Canada is pretty much like Norway in many ways just that in Canada most things are bigger. You have a different and larger moose type as well, » she said. « So it would be a little fun to beat Canada in something. »

Bakke said she was surprised over the Moose Jaw response to no longer being the largest moose sculpture.

« I have to admit that I didn’t think about that Mac The Moose meant so much for the citizens of Moose Jaw, » she said. « So I have a bit of bad conscience for that. I’m sorry. »

Linda Bakke said Storelgen was meant to raise awareness for traffic safety in the area as the municipality of Stor-Elvdal has Norway’s third highest moose population. (Linda Bakke/website)

Although even if Moose Jaw were to make Mac the Moose bigger by larger antlers, a hat or other means, it looks like Norway would take the lead again before long.

« We are looking into building a much bigger one [moose statue], 20 meter high, in gold, » she said.

Linda Bakke said making sculptures « is that thing that makes me the most excited. » (Submitted by Linda Bakke)

Bakke said the 20 meter high gold moose statue is being researched right now to understand the cost and it would go in the same general area as Storelgen.

Bakke said the silver Storelgen sculpture was different than some other ones she’s made since it’s meant to draw attention to road safety.

She said it was to draw attention to the moose in the area, act as a reference point for people between Oslo and Trondheim, let people stretch their legs and be an identity symbol as the municipality of Stor-Elvdal has Norway’s third highest moose population. 

« The accident statistics show that there has been a drastic decline in accidents and deaths in connection with the measures, » Bakke said. « That feels very good as an artist to contribute to. »

« To manifest sculptures is that thing that makes me the most excited. »

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Bragg Creek section joins world’s longest network of recreational trails

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After construction and upgrades, it’s now one of the most expansive trail systems in the world.

The Great Trail — formerly known as the Trans Canada Trail — is a 24,000-kilometre connected trail that goes from coast to coast to coast across Canada.

A new 7.5-kilometre trail connects the hamlet of Bragg Creek to the West Bragg Creek Provincial Recreation Area, funded by the province and the Greater Bragg Creek Trail Association (GBCTA).

That extends the Great Trail east to Calgary, creating the world’s longest network of recreational trails, according to the Alberta government.

Outdoor enthusiasts will have better access to more than 150 kilometres of non-motorized trail in West Bragg Creek and Kananaskis Country, the province said.

The Great Trail — formerly known as the Trans Canada Trail — is a 24,000-kilometre connected trail that goes from coast to coast to coast across Canada.

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Robyn Seetal, director of the Great Trail, said the development makes it safer and more accessible for people to experience the great outdoors.

“It’s a trail that connects Canadians from all walks of life and what’s incredible about it is that it connects over 15,000 communities across Canada,” she said. “Over 80 per cent of Canadians live just 30 minutes from a trail.”

The Great Trail — formerly known as the Trans Canada Trail — is a 24,000-kilometre connected trail that goes from coast to coast to coast across Canada.

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It’s all about discovering parts of the country — especially what we’ve got right here in Alberta, she said.

“This opens up another section of our beautiful landscape for people to enjoy. Every section of the trail is unique and offers amazing, incredible beauty,” Seetal said. “It provides access to this community in Bragg Creek but it also showcases Alberta’s beauty.”

A new West Bragg Creek interpretive trail — called the Watershed Heritage Trail — features information panels that highlight local history and was sponsored by the Elbow River Watershed Partnership and the GBCTA.

For increased accessibility, the West Bragg Creek Provincial Recreation Area parking lot was expanded from 190 stalls to 485, funded by the province with $2.5 million.

© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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From ‘Jurassic Park’ to Blue Whales, meet the Canadian who assembles priceless fossils for the world’s museums

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When Peter May is asked what he does for a living, he usually responds by saying, “I’m the local dinosaur builder.”

People tend greet his response with a puzzled smile.

“They wonder what the heck you’re talking about,” he says.

Not many people know that May’s business, Research Casting International, is renowned around the world for its work with prehistoric fossils.

“We build dinosaurs for museums throughout the world. We work with the skeletons and the bones. We mould and cast them out.”

May’s company is the one paleontologists call when they make a discovery in the field. Research Casting staff extract the specimen, and then bring it to the company’s 50,000-square-foot workshop in Trenton, Ont.

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While there, the specimen is chiseled away from rock, cleaned and strengthened. After months of this tedious work, it’s then mounted and shipped to museums around the world, such as The Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., the Beijing Museum of Natural History and the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto.

“He’s the go-to guy if you want to make a dinosaur exhibit (anywhere) in the world,” says David Evans, the curator in vertebrate paleontology at the Royal Ontario Museum.

“If you’ve been through a museum in Canada, or any major dinosaur museum in the world, chances are you’ve seen a skeletal mount that was produced by Peter May’s company.”

The dinosaur fossils May’s company works with can be up to 70 million years old and are extremely delicate to work with. “You can have the hardest rock in the world with a fossil stuck into it. You’re chiseling away a very hard sandstone from around a very delicate fossil. It takes a very good touch to do that. You have to be patient,” May says.

The process takes months, if not years, to complete. Intense attention to detail is needed to mount hundreds of individual bones together to make one complete fossil display. The process is “very similar to how a jeweler sets a diamond into a diamond ring,” Evans says. “But take a skeleton that has 400 bones and produce that setting for a diamond ring 400 times on a scale of a tyrannosaurus rex.”

READ MORE: University of Alberta researchers uncover new fossil species in Italy

A sculptor by trade, May started with the Royal Ontario Museum in 1977. He saw an ad in the paper one day for a paleontological technician. “And I had no idea what that meant,” May laughs.

“I didn’t really have any knowledge of dinosaurs. I probably knew what a T-Rex was, but at the time it was the band more so than the animal,” he laughs again. “My first introduction was when I first started working at the Royal Ontario Museum.”

He spent five years working for the ROM and then was asked to help build the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, Alta.

“I was hired there as the senior technician doing the mounting, the molding and the casting,” May says. “We had met a lot of paleontologists who came by and the exhibits were just fantastic and at that time the world hadn’t seen anything like that.”

READ MORE: Well-preserved dinosaur found in northern Alberta named after Royal Tyrrell researcher

After completing the project, May returned to the ROM In 1986. “Then I was getting calls, would I mount a dinosaur in my spare time? That was probably from my reputation from building Tyrrell. So in the evenings, I’d mount dinosaur skeletons.”

He and a couple of others worked with molds and casts. They had a drill press and a welding machine. They’d mount the skeleton for the customer, then shut things down and put the tools away.

Yet more calls would come in, so they’d set things up and work on the next project. Eventually they had so much business they didn’t need to shut down.

Now 31 years later, May and his 35 employees have completed hundreds of dinosaur fossil exhibits on almost every continent — except for one. “We don’t have a museum in Antarctica, although they do have fossils coming out of there.”

READ MORE: Dinosaur figurines, replicas stolen from Alberta’s Jurassic Forest theme park

But perhaps his most famous work isn’t in a museum at all. “I think a really good example of Peter’s influence on the world is his work for the movie Jurassic Park — the most famous dinosaur movie, and one of the most famous movies in history,” Evans says.

“That last scene in Jurassic Park, where the raptors are battling with T-Tex around a T-Rex skeleton, Peter May actually built those skeletons for the movie. Of course, that’s an iconic scene in film. And Peter had his hand in that,” Evans says.

To protect the fossils he works with — some of them are considered priceless — security in May’s facility is taken very seriously. For instance, one client has had cameras installed just so it can observe its fossils 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

READ MORE: Dinosaur fossils discovered in Saskatchewan

May showed us some of those projects that are behind closed doors, though we weren’t allowed to bring in our cameras — and we aren’t allowed to say what we saw.

His clients want their fossils under a veil of secrecy for a very good reason.

“When we have an original fossil here, it’s priceless. To find a fossil is hard to begin with. To find a fossil that’s one of a kind, is even harder,” May says.

“A lot of museums like to keep it quiet. We’ll do the work. The museum holds everything for the opening.”

One fossil in May’s warehouse that isn’t under wraps is a Blue Whale. It’s the largest mammal on earth at up to 100 feet long (30 m) and weighing 170 tonnes. The whale is currently listed as an endangered animal by The International Union for Conservation of Nature.

“They’re having a tough time,” May says. “One thing that we’re finding, which isn’t very good, is that we’re doing more and more whale skeletons for museums. Is it a sign that these animals are going extinct and they’re giving it to a company that specializes working on dinosaurs and now we’re working on modern mammals?”

And this is where May feels his work in museums has the greatest impact.

“You see the kids come walking in, just in awe. They’ll look at the Blue Whale,” May says. “Hopefully we’re inspiring children to learn more to be a part of the world and the history of the world and it becomes a part of their lives. It’s up to us to appreciate what they are and hopefully help them survive.”

© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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Mike Woods achieves rare Canadian cycling feat at road race worlds

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Mike Woods, the second Canadian to win a Spanish Vuelta stage earlier this month, became the country’s first cyclist to reach the podium at the road race world championships in 34 years with a third-place finish on Sunday in Innsbruck, Austria.

In 1984, Canada’s Steve Bauer won a bronze medal at the road world championship in Spain, just a few weeks after he captured the country’s first Olympic medal in road cycling at Los Angeles.

« My ears were ringing because the people were so loud and I could hear their cow bells, » said Woods, an Ottawa native. « Even before the race, I told myself I’d try to get inspiration and energy from what the fans bring to the race. There were so many fans today. »

The 31-year-old led Sunday’s race with less than 10 kilometres remaining before bowing to Spain’s Alejandro Valverde, who sprinted to his first world title after a grueling race of six hours 46 minutes through the Austrian Alps.

Valverde led a group of four in the final kilometre, including Woods, and just remained ahead in the sprint, with Romain Bardet of France taking the silver.

From left, Ottawa native Michael Woods, winner Alejandro Valverde of Spain and Romain Bardet of France battle to the finish in the men’s elite road road race in Austria. (Christof Stache/AFP/Getty Images)

Sunday’s victory came 15 years after Valverde won silver in Hamilton, a feat he repeated in 2005 in Madrid.

« This is the greatest day of my career. It means everything to me to take this victory, » the 38-year-old Valverde said through an interpreter after becoming the first Spanish world champion since Oscar Freire won the title in 2004.

Sunday’s title came a year after he suffered a fractured kneecap in a fall in the Tour de France, forcing him to end his 2017 season prematurely.

Valverde, who served a doping suspension earlier in his career, positioned himself for the win when he went ahead of the pack together with Bardet and Woods for the final five kilometres.

He is planning to retire following the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

2nd at Liè​ge-Bastogne-Liè​ge

Also representing Canada in Sunday’s race were Rob Britton (Rally Cycling), reigning national road race champion Antoine Duchesne (Groupama-FDJ) and Hugo Houle (Astana).

Woods, who rides for the EF Education First-Drapac, or Cannondale-Drapac, was second in the prestigious Liè​ge-Bastogne-Liè​ge one-day race in April, the first Canadian to reach the podium at the event.

In May, he was also runner-up on Stage 4 of the Giro d’Italia and ended up 19th after being slowed by illness.

Woods, who makes his home in Spain these days, is a former elite distance runner at the University of Michigan.

He switched to cycling after a recurrent stress fracture in his foot and turned heads early in the 2016 season with a fifth-place finish in his first road race as a World Tour pro at the Tour Down Under in Australia.

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