Researchers at the University of Missouri have determined the mechanisms corn plants use to combat the western corn rootworm.
Long used in the dairy industry for autonomous milking and herding, robotics technology is being applied in soil testing, data collection, fertilizer and pesticide application and many other areas of crop production.
“Robotics and automation can play a significant role in society meeting 2050 agricultural production needs,” argues the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ Robotics and Automation Society on its website.
Farmers have a right to question the value of new technologies promising greater efficiency on the farm. But Paul Rocco, president of Ottawa-based Provectus Robotics Solutions, believes robotics offer a suite of potential new solutions for producers short on resources and averse to risk.
“In a perfect world, farmers would have a machine that could perform soil sampling at night, deliver a report in the morning, and be sent out the following night to autonomously spray,” says Rocco. “We’re a ways away from that, but the technology is maturing and the capabilities exist already – it’s about putting it into the hands of farmers and making sure it’s affordable.”
Provectus’ latest project involved problem solving for a banana plantation in Martinique, where human ATV operators are at risk of injury from chemical spray or even death due to unsafe driving conditions. The company recently developed a remotely operated ground vehicle that carries spray equipment and can be controlled by operators in a safe location.
“We see applications in Canada,” says Rocco. “Why expose people to hazardous substances and conditions when you can have an unmanned system?”
Robotics are not all bananas. For example, a Minneapolis-based company, Rowbot Systems, has developed an unmanned, self-driving, multi-use platform that can travel between corn rows – hence, “Rowbots” – to deliver fertilizer, seed cover crops, and collect data.
RowBots are not yet commercially available, but CEO Kent Cavender-Bares says there’s already been interest from corn growers across the United States as well as Canada.
As to whether the use of robotics is cost-effective for farmers, it’s almost too soon to say. But utility can be balanced against cost.
“In terms of cost effectiveness from the farmer’s perspective, there’s a strong story already for driving yields higher while reducing production costs per bushel. Of course, we need to bring down the cost on our side to deliver services while making a profit,” says Cavender-Bares.
He believes that as autonomy spreads within agriculture, there will be a trend toward smaller, robotic machines.
“Not only will smaller machines be safer, but they’ll also compact soil less and enable more precision and greater diversity of crops,” he says.
Case study: ‘BinBots’
Closer to home, a group of University of Saskatchewan engineering students has designed a “BinBot,” an autonomous sensor built to crawl through grain bins and deliver moisture and temperature readings.
The students were part of a 2015 Capstone 495 design course, in which groups of four students are matched with industry sponsors to tackle specific problems.
Joy Agnew, a project manager with the Prairie Agricultural Machinery Institute (PAMI)’s Agricultural Research Services, stepped forward with a challenge: could students develop an improved grain bin sensor for PAMI?
“It came about from the first summer storage of canola project we did, and the data showing that in the grain at the top of the bin, the temperature stayed steady during the entire sampling period, but the temperature in the headspace grain was fluctuating wildly,” says Agnew.
“We realized the power of grain insulating capacity – there was less than 15 centimetres between the grain that was changing and the grain that wasn’t. That made us think: the sensors are really only telling you the conditions in a one-foot radius around the sensor – less than one per cent of all the grain in the bin.”
The problem she set to the students: can you design sensors with “higher resolution” sensing capabilities than currently available cables?
“We were looking at some high-tech ideas of how we could do that with radio waves or imaging, and we thought we needed more mechanical systems,” says Luke McCreary, who has since graduated. “We ended up with a track system in the bin roof with a robot on a cable. The robot has a couple of augers on it so it can propel itself through the grain, taking temperature and humidity measurements as it goes and sending that data to a logging source to create a 3D map of the temperature, humidity and moisture in the bin,” he says.
Once built, the robot will be six inches in diameter and 14 inches long, with the ability to move laterally, vertically and transversally.
Agnew says PAMI is applying for funding to build the robot, and has already had some interest from manufacturers. She says the technology could reach farmers’ bins between five and 10 years from now.
“We think this is the way of the future to avoid the risk of spoilage,” she says. “The technology is advancing, and costs are declining rapidly.”
The project, called GeoVisage, is the brainchild of three Nipissing University researchers – geographers Dan Walters and John Kovacs, and computer scientist Mark Wachowiak. The team says the project was born from a request from area farmers to collect data that could be shared with farmers in a timely way on their own farms.
“Initially the idea was to collect quality information that could be shared among Northern Ontario farmers without requiring them to meet in person all the time,” says Kovacs. “Our area saw a shift from cattle to cash crops about ten years ago, and farmers needed enough data to decide what different types of cash crops made sense to grow.”
Farmers typically relied on inadequate data from weather stations at regional airports, which can be up to a hundred kilometres from farms, and located on escarpments, rather than the clay belt, where crops grow. Over the past seven years, Walters and Kovacs have installed a series of weather stations on farms throughout the region. Some units update key data points every hour, while newer stations provide real-time updates, accessible through the GeoVisage system by computer or other device. The team also incorporates satellite imagery and drone technology for aerial views of fields at different times throughout the season.
“It took some conversations with local farmers to realize what they were using the information for, and what changes they wanted to see on the user interface,” says Kovacs. “We learned soil temperature is important for seeding, wind speed is important for making spraying decisions. Heat availability can help with assessing new opportunities, like growing corn under plastic.”
Kovacs notes drone technology proved useful in helping one producer measure the distance between tile drainage runs in a newly-acquired property, and another producer used aerial images to investigate the extent of crop damage caused by crop pests such as army worms. “Having farmers involved in collecting and using the data has been important for this project,” says Walters. “We’ve partnered with producers associations and government on different projects, and it’s been a valuable learning experience for our students and faculty.”
The data is available at no cost to producers in the region, and it serves as an important source of information for students and researchers across Canada. The project received funding from the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corporation and in-kind support from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. For more information visit http://geovisage.nipissingu.ca
In a recent study, UBC researcher Michael Deyholos identified the genes responsible for the bane of many Canadian flax farmers’ existence: the fibres in the plant's stem.
“These findings have allowed us to zero in the genetic profile of the toughest part of this plant and may one day help us engineer some of that toughness out,” says Deyholos, a biology professor at UBC's Okanagan campus. “With further research, we might one day be able to help farmers make money off a waste material that wreaks havoc on farm equipment and costs hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars to deal with.”
As part of his research, Deyholos and his former graduate student at the University of Alberta dissected thousands of the plant’s stem under a microscope in order to identify which genes in the plant's make up were responsible for the growth of the stem, and which weren’t.
Due to the length of the Canadian prairie’s growing season, where flax is grown, farmers typically burn the stems, known as flax straw, as opposed to harvesting the material. In many European countries, flax straw is used as an additive in paper, plastics and other advanced materials such as those used in the production of automobiles.
Currently, Canadian flax is used only for the value of its seeds, which can be eaten or broken down into flaxseed oil. Flaxseed oil is used in the manufacturing of paints, linoleum, and as a key element in the manufacturing of packaging materials and plastics.
According to the Flax Council of Canada, Canada is one of the largest flax producers in the world with the nation’s prairie provinces cultivating 816,000 tonnes of the plant in 2014/15 on 1.6 million acres of land. Deyholos’ research was recently published in the journal Frontiers of Plant Science.
One key finding is that research dissemination has often been neglected in past policy development or is left until the end of the project cycle, which needs to change in order to increase stakeholder engagement and allow for greater impact of results. Another is that the sector needs to find new ways to incent and support knowledge transfer activities.
“Last year, we broke new ground by releasing Canada’s first-ever agricultural research policy, a long-standing objective for the sector and for AIC," said Serge Buy, CEO of AIC. "This year, we are continuing our work by raising awareness of the need to better communicate and disseminate agricultural research. We need to collectively ensure that game-changing results have the impact that they deserve in Canada and internationally.”
The report also discusses the role intellectual property (IP) has to play in the dissemination of research outcomes. Although the commercialization of research results can certainly lead to a positive rate of return on investment, IP management is often debated or misunderstood and not recognized as a potential dissemination route for Canadian innovations.
The report focuses on three key themes:
- Dissemination strategies and participation channels for agricultural research
- Knowledge transfer (KT) and extension
- IP protection, co-operation and collaboration
A subsequent, in-depth Best Practices Report for Research Dissemination highlighting a number of best practices from across the sector will be released by AIC later this summer.
To view the 2016 Conference Report click here.
Highlights of the report
“A scientific breakthrough that could dramatically change how farmers harvest, or manufacturers prepare a certain product, is discovered in a lab. How do we get this vital information from the research to benefit the end user?” – Theme 1, Page 8
“…farming has become an increasingly complex undertaking. The sector must find ways to unpack the complexity and tell stories in clear, uncomplicated ways to deliver strong, but accurate messages using adequate channels.” – Theme 1, Page 10
“The inclusion of funding for KT and extension activities in the next Federal-Provincial-Territorial Policy Framework… and enhanced collaboration across the sector can enable the environment needed to implement new participatory research methods and enable effective knowledge transfer.” – Theme 2, Page 15
“Intellectual property rights (IPR) affect nearly every part of the research process from initial development to the sharing of results with other researchers. It is also an area of great debate and misunderstanding not only in agricultural research but also in other areas of scientific research.” – Theme 3, Page 19
“Stronger IP agreements and partnerships can also help Canadian agricultural research achieve a competitive advantage at the international level.” – Theme 3, Page 20
Reporting in the Journal of Applied Psychology, Michigan State University’s Russell Johnson and colleagues say the depletion effects were especially strong for employees with high “pro-social motivation” – or those who care deeply about the welfare of others.
While previous research on helping has focused largely on the effects of the beneficiaries, this is one of the first studies to focus on the helpers.
“Helping co-workers can be draining for the helpers, especially for employees who help a lot,” said Johnson, associate professor of management. “Somewhat ironically, the draining effects of helping are worse for employees who have high pro-social motivation. When these folks are asked for help, they feel a strong obligation to provide help, which can be especially taxing.”
Sixty-eight employees in a variety of industries, including finance, engineering and health care, participated in the study by filling out surveys in the morning and afternoon for 15 consecutive workdays. The surveys measured depletion using a previously established scientific scale and helping through another scale that asks questions such as “Today, I went out of my way to help co-workers who asked for my help with work-related problems.”
The findings suggest employees should exercise caution when agreeing to help because helping may leave them depleted and less effective at work. On days when employees find themselves engaging in unusually high amounts of helping, they can attempt to bolster their energy by the strategic use of breaks, naps and stimulants like caffeine.
Help-seekers, on the other hand, should realize that asking for help, especially multiples times a day, has detrimental effects on the employees who are helping.
“This is not to say that co-workers should avoid seeking help, but that they ought to consider the magnitude and solvability of the issue before doing so and avoid continually seeking help from the same person,” the study says.
On the bright side, when helpers are thanked or made aware of the positive results of their actions, this can minimize and may even reverse the effects of depletion. “Thus, help-seekers can reduce the burden they place on helpers by clearly expressing the positive impact that helping had on them,” the study states.
Johnson’s co-authors are University of Florida researchers Mo Wang and Klodiana Lanaj, who earned a doctorate degree in business administration from MSU.
Johnson’s other research has looked at how bosses’ ethical behavior can break bad, workplace negativity can hurt productivity and nighttime smartphone use can zap workers’ energy.
FCC’s Producer Perspectives on Social License survey shows more than two thirds (68 per cent) of producers who responded to the survey believe public perception will have a growing impact on their operation over the next five years. Three quarters (72 per cent) of respondents also indicated they are comfortable sharing information about their operation practices in order to strengthen public trust and maintain their social license to operate.
“The good news is that most producers are aware of the potential impact public perception can have on their operations and are willing to share information about their practices with anyone interested in learning more about how food is produced,” says Marty Seymour, FCC director of industry and stakeholder relations. “Canada’s agriculture sector produces among the safest, highest-quality food in the world and it’s done in a socially responsible manner. The industry and individual producers take seriously their social license to operate, which is earned by maintaining public trust and confidence in what is produced and how it’s produced"
The survey found that almost half (46 per cent) of respondents have concerns about social license and their top concern (80 per cent) is new regulations that could result from public demands.
While most producers want to share information and talk about their agricultural practices, a recent survey by the new Canadian Centre for Food Integrity indicated most consumers are willing to listen and interested in learning about where their food comes from and how it is grown.
The Canadian CFI Public Trust Survey, released on May 31, showed 93 per cent of consumers know little or nothing about Canadian farming practices, and a majority (60 per cent) of those respondents indicated they want to know more about farming practices.
The same survey indicated farmers are viewed the most favourably – ahead of medical professionals, scientific researchers and government officials – in providing information about food and food production.According to the FCC survey, 82 per cent of respondents are motivated to share information with the public to help them better understand agricultural practices. The survey also showed 85 per cent of producers already share information with others beyond fellow producers and operators, 34 per cent host tours of their operations and 31 per cent respond to public comments and photos on social media.
Seymour says the industry-led initiative – Agriculture More Than Ever – is encouraging producers to connect with consumers to develop a better understanding of agriculture practices in Canada. Launched more than four years ago, it has attracted over 470 partner organizations and 2,300 individuals committed to creating positive perceptions of agriculture.
The Social License Vision panel survey was conducted from April 28 to May 3, 2016, generated 2,739 responses, a response rate of 63 per cent.
Stress, anxiety, depression, emotional exhaustion and burnout are all higher among farmers than among other groups, early findings of the survey show.As well, Canadian farmers are more stressed than those living and working elsewhere.
Professor Andria Jones-Bitton, a professor in the Department of Population Medicine, analyzed more than 1,100 responses nationwide to an online stress and resilience survey, conducted on agricultural producers from September 2015 to this past January.
“Some of the producer comments leave little doubt about the impact their job and culture is having on them,” Jones-Bitton says. “One said, ‘We are not invincible, but we feel we must be’. Another said, ‘What makes me the most upset is that I have everything I dreamed of – love, family and a farm – and all I feel is overwhelmed, out of control and sad.’"
The survey found 45 per cent of survey respondents had high stress. Another 58 per cent were classified with varying levels of anxiety, and 35 per cent with depression.
Overall, that’s two to four times higher than farmers studied in the United Kingdom and Norway, Jones-Bitton said.
Other signs of mental health problems revealed by the survey are equally concerning, she added.For example, significant numbers of farmers had high levels of emotional exhaustion (38 per cent) and cynicism (43 per cent).And resilience, popularly believed to be a strength among producers, is lower among two-thirds of the respondents than it is among a comparative U.S. population.
Indeed, in agriculture, a stigma is associated with mental health treatment, Jones-Bitton says.
So it follows that the survey showed 40 per cent of respondents said they’d feel uneasy getting professional help “because of what people might think.”
Another 31 per cent said seeking professional help could stigmatize a person’s life. Fewer than half believe there is adequate mental health support from the industry.
At the same time, more than three-quarters of those surveyed said professional mental services can be helpful in times of struggle, and almost as many said they would seek out such help.
Jones-Bitton sees that as good news. She is building a team of producers, industry representatives, veterinarians and mental health professionals to create, deliver and evaluate a mental health literacy training program for farmers.
This program would train people to recognize and respond to mental distress, and reduce stigma around mental health issues in Ontario’s agricultural sector.“We need to do something,” she says. “Farmers want help, and we’re going to find ways for them to receive it.”
Jones-Bitton and the Ontario Veterinary College AWAR2E group – an acronym for Advancing Wellness and Resilience in Research and Education — started out studying mental health among veterinarians. The scope grew as it became clear producers also had issues.
Ontarions are encouraged to help celebrate Local Food Week (June 6-12) with a visit to an Ontario farmers' market. Local farmers' markets provide an opportunity to taste and enjoy the delicious food grown in Ontario and meet the many people who grow it.
Mar. 21, 2016 - Alberta Agriculture and Forestry (AF) undertakes a number of research projects to ensure the quality and safety of land, air, and water for our food producers. Although long-term monitoring shows the overall quality of Alberta's irrigation water is good or excellent, a study is currently underway to use DNA fingerprinting techniques to determine the sources of contamination of irrigation water. While there are no current concerns, this is an opportunity to improve water quality for the future.
The Water Quality Section of AF is currently working with the Taber Irrigation District on a pilot study to understand the sources of E. coli in irrigation water. The study is funded by Growing Forward 2, a federal-provincial-territorial initiative. The District has made water quality a key part of their mandate to ensure farmers are growing the best quality crops.
Often, irrigators are required to have water quality tests completed to market their produce, and with recent changes in regulations in the United States (US), this need may increase. In the US, the Food Safety Modernization Act requires testing of water that is used to irrigate fruits and vegetables which are consumed raw. These regulations may affect Alberta producers with irrigated crops destined for export to the US.
This study will assist in identifying opportunities to continue to improve water quality, and help producers meet their food safety requirements for the global marketplace. The key item being measured in the study is E. coli. Generic E. coli are present in the intestines of most people and animals, and are excreted in feces. E. coli are therefore used to measure fecal contamination in water. The testing is complicated, as there are "naturalized" E. coli that occur in the environment and are not indicative of fecal contamination.
"Research gives us a better understanding on the amount of fecal and naturalized E. coli in irrigation water. The discovery of naturalized E. coli is very important because food safety is concerned about fecal contamination. If we find E. coli in water, we need to determine whether it is fecal or naturalized, which then determines if there is a food safety concern or not," says Andrea Kalischuk, director of water quality, AF.
"Our study in the Milk River area showed cliff swallows and cattle contaminated some of the water, but a significant proportion of naturalized E. coli was also observed" says Kalischuk. Whatever the study identifies as a source of contamination, the research team and irrigation district will need to work with producers to seek a balanced solution that supports both the agriculture industry and wildlife habitat, while meeting food safety requirements.
This is the final year of a three-year study, and a summary report will be shared with producers on AF's website in the fall of 2017.
POGA’s executive director Shawna Mathieson (with son Andrew) says higher levels of avenanthramides could give people even more reasons to eat oats. Photo by Shawna Mathieson, POGA.
Oats have a lot of things going for them when it comes to human health, and one of those things is a group of bioactive compounds called avenanthramides. So a three-year project at the University of Saskatchewan is laying the foundation to help breeders develop oat varieties with higher avenanthramide levels.
“Oats are a very unique crop. They are a cereal crop, but they are very different from most cereal crops, such as corn, rice and wheat. First of all, oats have a high oil content, which is not usual in cereal grains. For example, rice has about two per cent oil, but oats may have up to 18 per cent. The high oil content gives high energy, which is very good for feed,” explains Xiao Qiu, a professor in the university’s department of food and bioproduct sciences who is leading the avenanthramide project.
“Second, oats contain beta-glucan, a type of water-soluble dietary fibre with important health benefits.” The health effects of beta-glucan have been examined in many studies, and the two best-documented benefits are that it lowers cholesterol, which helps reduce the risk of heart disease, and that it reduces glycemic response after a meal, which helps control or prevent diabetes.
“And third, oats have avenanthramides, a type of polyphenol. Polyphenols are a big group of compounds that have many different types of functions, but avenanthramides are a unique type of polyphenol. They have very high antioxidant activity compared with some other polyphenols, and antioxidants are good for protection against cardiovascular disease and many other things. Avenanthramides also have strong anti-skin-irritation and anti-allergic activity. As well, [some research indicates] avenanthramides have high anti-proliferative activity; cancer cells grow very fast, so these kinds of compounds could inhibit cancer growth.” Although more research needs to be done to confirm the human health benefits of consuming avenanthramides, results so far suggest they may provide a variety of important benefits such as contributing to a reduced risk of colon cancer and a reduced risk of heart disease.
Avenanthramides are found only in oats, not other cereals. In fact, the “avena” in “avenanthramide” comes from the scientific name for oats, Avena sativa. The oat plant uses avenanthramides to help defend itself against pathogens.
Qiu notes that avenanthramides are being used commercially in skin lotions, creams and other personal care products. For example, Aveeno is a company whose name comes from its use of oats and oat extracts in its personal care products. “The basic functional compounds in Aveeno’s products are avenanthramides because of their very high antioxidant and anti-irritation activity.” Also, an Alberta-based company called Ceapro extracts avenanthramides from oats and sells the extract to companies for use in such products.
Qiu’s research program investigates the biosynthesis of bioactive compounds in plants and microbes, and includes studies of oat oil, beta-glucan and avenanthramides. His current avenanthramide project started in January 2015 and is funded by Saskatchewan’s Agriculture Development Fund and the Prairie Oat Growers Association (POGA).
Qiu and his research team have already completed this project’s first objective, which was to survey avenanthramide levels in oat germplasm. “If we want to increase the avenanthramide content in oats, we have to know which germplasm samples have higher levels. If the level is high in a sample, then an oat breeder could potentially use it as a parent for crossbreeding,” he says.
The researchers obtained germplasm samples from the university’s plant sciences department and from Plant Gene Resources of Canada, the Saskatoon-based national germplasm bank. Most of the samples were oat breeding lines and cultivars from Aaron Beattie, an oat breeder at the university and long-term partner in oat research with Qiu, but they also tested some wild Avena species to get a general idea of the range in avenanthramide levels.
Analyzing samples for avenanthramides is fairly complex. Qiu explains that oats contain up to 20 different types of avenanthramides, although normally there are only three major ones, which are known as avenanthramide-A, avenanthramide-B and avenanthramide-C. So his lab tested about 30 different germplasm samples for those three avenanthramides. The tests showed quite a wide range in avenanthramide levels.
His lab is now working on the second of the project’s two objectives: to find out how avenanthramides are made in the oat plant. “To improve this trait in oat varieties, you have to know the biosynthetic pathway – how avenanthramides are synthesized biochemically in the plant, what genes control the synthesis, what kinds of enzymes are involved, and all these kind of things,” Qiu says.
He adds, “If we know the genes involved, then oat breeders can design a molecular marker for the trait.” A molecular marker is a short sequence of DNA associated with a specific trait. Breeders use these types of markers to quickly screen germplasm for the desired traits in the lab, making their breeding efforts more efficient and effective.
Qiu notes, “I’ve talked to oat breeders here, and they haven’t made avenanthramides a priority trait in their breeding programs. Right now, they are focusing on things like disease resistance and yield. But you never know how things might go in the future.”
From superfood to super-duper food?
Down the road, if breeders are able to develop oat varieties with higher amounts of avenanthramides, then there could potentially be benefits along the oat value chain. “With an increased amount of avenanthramides, companies could use more oats in products like lotions and creams where they want anti-itching and anti-inflammatory properties,” says Shawna Mathieson, POGA’s executive director.
“And people would have even more reasons to eat this ‘superfood.’ Oats are already recommended by many doctors because the fibre in oats helps to reduce cholesterol. Some studies have shown that individuals with high cholesterol who consume just three grams of soluble fibre every day, or about the amount in a bowl of oatmeal, can lower their cholesterol. Avenanthramides have also been linked to prevention of cardiovascular disease and to protection against colon cancer and skin irritation. So higher avenanthramide levels would make oats even better for consumers.”
As research information about the health benefits of eating avenanthramides increases and as consumers become aware of these benefits, then higher levels of avenanthramides in oats could help to increase oat consumption by health-conscious consumers. She says, “That would mean higher sales and hopefully higher profitability not only for oat producers but also for those down the oat value chain.”
Qiu thinks avenanthramides could play a valuable part in further improving the reputation of oats as a functional food. “Although oats already have a healthy image, people are only paying attention to the beta-glucan content. But oats are not just about beta-glucan; they also have avenanthramides. Right now avenanthramides are used for cosmetics, but consuming avenanthramides is also good for you. Adding avenanthramides to the good image of oats would create more demand,” he says.
“For instance, people drink red wine because of the polyphenolics, but oats have a unique group of polyphenolics with stronger antioxidant activity than wine polyphenolics. People drink tea partially because of the tannins and other polyphenolics, but oats have avenanthramides with a better activity. So why not eat more oats?”
Feb. 12, 2016 - The federal government announced today it will contribute $14-million over five years to a natural products commercialization centre to be headquartered in Charlottetown, P.E.I.
The non-profit Natural Products Canada (NPC) will research, develop and market natural products and technologies in neutraceuticals, cosmetics, food, agricultural and veterinary care, and other areas.
The federal money will be matched by more than $10 million from industry and other sources for total funding of $24 million by 2021.
The beta-glucan project results may help barley breeders and processors who want to work toward further enhancing the healthfulness of barley food products. Photo by Janet Kanters.
Research has already proven that barley beta-glucan lowers cholesterol. Now a major clinical trial has answered some previously unanswered questions about this effect. Plus it has identified improvements in gut microbes from eating beta-glucan and a possible link between a person’s genetic makeup and beta-glucan’s effectiveness. Results from the project could help advance the food barley value chain.
Beta-glucan is a type of viscous dietary fibre. “Both barley and oats are rich sources of beta-glucan. In contrast, wheat contains almost no beta-glucan, and corn and rice have none at all,” explains Nancy Ames, a food scientist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) in Winnipeg, who was the project’s principal investigator.
The health effects of consuming beta-glucan have been examined in many studies. The two best documented health benefits are cholesterol lowering, which helps reduce the risk of heart disease, and reduction of glycemic response after a meal, which helps control/prevent diabetes.
Several countries, including Canada and the United States, have approved health claims on the cholesterol-lowering effect of barley beta-glucan. According to Health Canada, consumption of at least three grams of barley beta-glucan per day helps reduce cholesterol.
Ames and her AAFC team were the ones who prepared the submission for this health claim, conducting a comprehensive analysis of all the scientifically valid studies on the topic. The claim was submitted by the Alberta Barley Commission to Health Canada in 2009 and was approved in 2012.
While preparing the submission, Ames and her team found certain gaps in the scientific information. So she and Susan Tosh of AAFC’s Guelph Food Research Centre developed a multi-year project to delve deeper into barley beta-glucan’s cholesterol-lowering effect.
“Our first interest was whether processing made a difference to the cholesterol-lowering effect. We knew that processing can sometimes affect beta-glucan’s viscosity, and we wondered: Is it possible that low versus high viscosity makes a difference in cholesterol lowering?” Ames says. “We also wanted to look at the optimal dose of beta-glucan required for health effects because there wasn’t a proper dose-effect study. So we decided to look at those together.”
The project also explored the physiological mechanism responsible for beta-glucan’s cholesterol-lowering effect; the influence of beta-glucan on gut microbes; and a possible genetic component in people’s response to beta-glucan. The project involved both barley and oats; the researchers used oats in much of the work to develop measurement methods, and they used barley for the clinical trial.
To carry out the project, Ames brought together a large, multidisciplinary team that included Tosh and several scientists from the University of Manitoba and its Richardson Centre for Functional Foods and Nutraceuticals, as well as technicians and graduate students.
A continuum of advances
The project involved a number of phases, with the progress made in each phase providing the foundation for subsequent work.
In the initial phase, the researchers used a range of processing treatments on barley to see if they could increase or decrease beta-glucan’s viscosity. They found that when normal barley is processed and prepared in normal ways, the beta-glucan has a higher viscosity than the untreated grain. Ames notes, “You always hear people say that processing is bad. But in this case, processing was good.”
The researchers also found certain techniques that reduced beta-glucan’s viscosity; those techniques are not commonly used in barley processing.
As part of doing this work, the researchers developed a faster way to measure beta-glucan’s viscosity. This method could also be used by processors to measure the beta-glucan characteristics of prototype food products, and by crop breeders to screen breeding materials.
Based on this initial work on processing and viscosity, the researchers were able to create barley foods with low and high viscosity beta-glucan for use in the clinical trial.
The trial compared the effects of four different breakfasts: a barley-based diet with three grams of high viscosity beta-glucan; a barley-based diet with three grams of low viscosity beta-glucan; a barley-based diet with five grams of low viscosity beta-glucan; and a heart-healthy wheat- and rice-based diet, as a control.
During the course of the trial, the researchers measured a number of health characteristics in the participants such as body weight, body fat distribution and blood pressure. They also collected blood and fecal samples, and analyzed the samples for various factors related to the cholesterol-lowering mechanism, gene-by-diet interactions, and gut microbes.
The clinical trial showed that viscosity definitely matters. Ames says, “Out of all the treatments, the high viscosity treatment had the greatest effect on lowering cholesterol.” Now in all their beta-glucan studies, the researchers measure not only the amount but also the viscosity of beta-glucan.
These results support the barley health claim. “Since normally processed barley foods have high viscosity beta-glucan, then health claims for the cholesterol-lowering effect of beta-glucan will be valid for the barley foods most commonly encountered by consumers,” Ames explains.
She adds, “It is easy to eat barley every day and get the amount of beta-glucan you need.”
The project also shed light on the mechanism of beta-glucan’s cholesterol-lowering effect. Through measurements of blood cholesterol and other factors, the researchers were able to identify which of several proposed mechanisms was likely to be the one responsible.
As well, they identified a possible gene-diet interaction. Although many studies have found that some individuals respond differently than others to dietary changes, this study is the first one to report a gene-related difference in response to beta-glucan. The results indicated that trial participants with a certain variant of a key gene had less of a response to beta-glucan’s cholesterol-lowering effect than participants with other variants of the gene.
That finding needs to be confirmed by further studies. If it is proven, then it would have implications for personalized nutrition. For example, potentially a doctor could simply do a blood test to see how well a patient would respond to beta-glucan as a possible treatment to lower his or her cholesterol.
The researchers were interested in the effects of beta-gluten on gut microbial populations because gut microbes are known to play a significant part in human digestion and health. The project’s results showed that consumption of the high viscosity beta-glucan meals significantly shifted gut microbe populations to a healthy pattern. This is the first clinical study to report gut microbial changes in humans due to eating beta-glucan.
The analysis showed that this microbial population shift was associated with reduction of risk factors for cardiovascular disease, such as body mass index, waist circumference and blood pressure. Ames says, “Together, our results suggest that altering gut microbiota may be playing a major role in mediating the health benefits of beta-glucan.”
“I am really excited about our findings,” notes Yanan Wang, a PhD student involved in this project. She explains that better understanding of beta-glucan’s cholesterol-lowering mechanism could provide practical benefits. “By knowing the mechanism, we can use the physiological effects of functional foods in a more effective way.”
Overall, the project has achieved important advances in understanding how beta-glucan works in the human body and how to measure key characteristics of beta-glucan. These findings are helping Ames and her colleagues in their current beta-glucan research, including several clinical trials on viscosity and one on glycemic response.
The project’s results can also help barley breeders and processors who want to work toward further enhancing the healthfulness of barley food products. As well, the findings could help raise interest among health-conscious consumers in food barley products.
In recent years, wheat and its proteins have come under attack in some popular diet books, with claims that breeders have made “drastic” and “bad” changes to wheat varieties over the last 50 years. Now, a study comparing Prairie wheat varieties spanning the past 150 years is puncturing some of those claims.
“Some people are claiming that wheat protein concentration has greatly increased or that wheat protein quality has changed in recent decades, and that those changes are the main villain responsible for several chronic diseases in humans,” says Ravindra Chibbar, professor and Canada Research Chair in Crop Quality (Molecular Biology and Genetics) at the University of Saskatchewan.
“But our results indicate that the total protein concentration hasn’t changed very much, just a one per cent increase over a century.” On top of that, wheat yields and other important traits have improved over that time.
Chibbar became interested in comparing the nutritional composition of heritage versus modern Canadian wheat varieties when the negative claims about wheat started to appear in the popular media. So he approached his colleague Pierre Hucl, a professor at the University’s Crop Development Centre, about this idea. Hucl explained that he already had an ongoing field experiment to measure the rate of improvement in Prairie wheat varieties over time, and he offered grain samples from this study to Chibbar for nutritional analysis.
In his study, Hucl is comparing Canada Western Red Spring (CWRS) wheat varieties ranging from the 1860s to today, in replicated trials in central Saskatchewan.
“In Western Canada, CWRS is the main class of wheat, which is of the highest quality,” Chibbar notes. CWRS wheats are high-protein, hard wheats with superior milling and baking qualities, and are often used for yeast breads. Developing new varieties for this class can be challenging for breeders because they must meet stringent requirements for milling and baking quality, while they work to improve other traits like yield, days to maturity, and resistance to diseases and insect pests.
For the study, Hucl has selected varieties to represent each decade since 1860, choosing ones that were grown on a large area or that made a significant contribution to advances in wheat traits. The oldest variety in the study is Red Fife, a well-known Canadian heritage wheat. The study began in 1989 with 28 varieties, and Hucl has added more varieties with each passing decade since then, for a total of 37 varieties at present.
The researchers recently published a scientific paper in the journal Cereal Chemistry on the changes from the 1860s to today in agronomic and end-use quality characteristics. They found that grain yield and kernel weight have increased, while days to maturity and plant height have decreased. For example, AC Barrie (registered 1994) yielded 25 per cent higher than Marquis (1909), 17 per cent higher than Thatcher (1935) and 11 per cent higher Neepawa (1969). Red Fife’s yield, at 3273 kg/ha, was close to yields of modern varieties such as AC Barrie (3439 kg/ha). However, Red Fife was six days later, 16 centimetres taller and more prone to lodging than AC Barrie.
The researchers also found that several traits important for milling and baking improved from the heritage to the modern varieties.
So, even with the challenge of meeting the strict quality requirements, Canadian breeders have made significant improvements in CWRS wheat.
Chibbar and his lab are currently analyzing the nutritional composition of the grain from Hucl’s experiments in 2013 and 2014. Chibbar presented some of the initial results in a poster at the Canadian Nutrition Society meeting in May 2015.
“We have analyzed the grains of the 37 varieties for total starch, total protein and polymeric proteins,” he says. “Polymeric proteins are the ones that form the gluten complex.”
The gluten protein complex is formed when water is added to wheat flour to make dough; certain proteins – mainly gliadins and glutenins – interact with each other to form gluten. Gluten gives wheat dough characteristics like elasticity, so gluten is very important for uses like making bread.
Chibbar is particularly interested in wheat proteins because of claims in the popular media that gluten proteins have changed in recent decades and that those changes are causing increasing health problems.
His nutritional analysis showed that total protein and total starch concentrations have changed very little since the 1860s. The total starch concentration varied from 56 per cent (for Apex, registered in 1937) to 69 per cent (Superb, 2001). The total protein concentration was lowest in Red Fife (1860) and Saunders (1947), and highest in Katepwa (1981).
“Overall, total protein concentration increased at a rate of 0.01 per cent per year,” Chibbar says. He adds, “The results of the grain protein analysis by the Canadian Grain Commission lab are very similar to what we are finding, and those results are based on a large number of commercial samples.”
The polymeric protein concentration, expressed as a per cent of total grain protein, ranged from 57 per cent in Lillian (2005) to 65 per cent in Pembina (1959). There was no definite trend of increase in polymeric proteins with time.
Chibbar will be continuing the nutritional analysis, including a more detailed look at the protein characteristics. He will be presenting the results at a scientific meeting in October, and he expects to publish a paper on the work in 2016.
“The take-home message for producers from our research is that investments in wheat improvement over the years have increased yields and improved other traits, like reduction in days to maturity,” Chibbar says.
“I’ve been working with wheat for the last 30 years, and I firmly believe that wheat is still a nutritious grain. The very small population who are gluten-sensitive or who have celiac disease have to be very careful, but for the majority of people, wheat is a nutritious grain. With my studies in the future, we will determine if there have been any nutritional changes and, if so, what those changes are,” he adds.
“As scientists, we want to do scientifically sound experiments with required controls and use scientifically approved techniques to characterize grain constituents. Finally the results and conclusions have to go through a rigorous peer review before being acceptable for publication in a scientific journal.”
The University of Saskatchewan, Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture, Saskatchewan Wheat Pool (in the earlier years of the study) and Canada Research Chairs program funded this research.
July 28, 2015 - A new procedure devised by U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) scientists to extract lunasin from soybean seeds could expedite further studies of this peptide for its cancer-fighting potential and other health benefits.
In addition to inhibiting certain cancerous cells in laboratory tests, lunasin has demonstrated anti-inflammatory activity that may prove helpful in the battle against some chronic diseases. Unfortunately, obtaining sufficient amounts of lunasin has been a costly, time-consuming and laborious affair. This, in turn, has impeded lunasin’s investigation in large-scale animal and human clinical trials, according to Hari Krishnan, a molecular biologist with USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS), Plant Genetics Research Unit in Columbia, MO.
Now, however, Krishnan and ARS colleague Thomas Wang report their development of a fast new procedure for extracting lunasin in amounts suitable to conduct these trials. Using the new procedure, they produced 3.2 grams of a concentrated form of lunasin, along with two protease inhibitors, from 100 grams of soybean flour. The actual extraction is done with a 30 per cent solution of ethanol, followed by centrifuging steps and the addition of calcium chloride to further purify the concentrate, explains Krishnan. Wang leads the agency’s Diet, Genomics, and Immunology Laboratory in Beltsville, MD.
The entire process takes less than 2 hours and yields far more lunasin and protease inhibitor concentrate than other methods that have been tried, including sophisticated chromatography procedures and live cultures of genetically modified yeast or bacteria. Besides being faster, the new method can also be easily scaled up to yield much larger amounts, Krishnan and Wang report in the January 2015 online version of Food Chemistry.
Test-tube experiments conducted by Wang demonstrated the extract’s biological activity, inhibiting the production of inflammation-causing cytokines by human leukemia cells derived from a line called THP-1, which is commonly used in biomedical research.
Their investigations coincide with increased scientific attention on the preventive role that consuming soy or soy products can play in reducing breast, colon and other cancers.
The humble oat is a nutritional powerhouse, and among its many nutritional components are avenanthramides. These naturally occurring compounds, found only in oats, are known to soothe itchy and irritated skin, and research is pointing to other possible health benefits. Edmonton-based Ceapro Inc. is extracting avenanthramides from oats and supplying the extracts to growing markets.
“Ceapro is the only company in the world extracting avenanthramides from oats using a fully patented proprietary technology,” says Gilles Gagnon, Ceapro’s president and chief executive officer. In addition to avenanthramides, the company has developed and commercialized various other products from oats such as beta glucan, which helps reduce cholesterol, and oat oil.
Gagnon explains that the name “avenanthramide” derives from the Latin word for oats, avena. Oats contain more than 20 different avenanthramides. These phenolic compounds were discovered about 25 years ago by Dr. William Collins, a scientist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC).
“Many scientific studies have been conducted on these compounds, and we know from lab and clinical testing that avenanthramides have anti-inflammatory, antihistamine [anti-allergic] and antioxidant properties,” says Gagnon.
Currently Ceapro’s avenanthramide extracts are used in personal care products for skin, hair, baby care, sun care and cosmetics. Gagnon notes, “A number of large, multi-national companies have selected Ceapro’s avenanthramide extract as an active ingredient in several well-known personal care products.”
According to Dr. Paul Moquin, Ceapro’s director of research and development, avenanthramides block redness and itchiness, and leave the skin healthier. “That is why our mothers and grandmothers put oats into bath water. The ancient Egyptians did that too. So this use for oats is not new, but we now know why it works, and we know the compounds responsible for the effect.”
The company’s avenanthramide extract is also used in products for dogs and cats. Examples include ear cleansers, shampoos and skin conditioners, all of which reduce irritation and promote healing. Ceapro’s hottest market for these animal health products is Asia, with a major customer in Japan.
Extracting avenanthramides from oats on a commercial scale is no easy task. Moquin says, “Avenanthramides are found in very small amounts in the oat kernel, plus the amounts vary quite a bit, depending on the growing season and the oat variety.”
To meet the challenges of avenanthramide extraction, Ceapro signed two agreements with AAFC in 2012. One agreement gives Ceapro the worldwide rights to AAFC’s technology to extract avenanthramides from oats. The other agreement is for Ceapro to test and register a new AAFC oat variety developed especially for use with this technology, with a view to negotiating a sole variety licence.
The technology plus the variety should help Ceapro extract higher quantities of avenanthramides, for greater production and improved cost efficiency. As the company develops novel avenanthramide formulations, it fine-tunes the extraction process to ensure production of standardized and stable avenanthramide extracts. Moquin explains, “Once we have a new formulation, we make sure it’s stable, and then find ways to scale up the process at a cost that allows us to sell it to multinationals as well as smaller companies.”
The new variety is a hulless oat. “Currently, most oats grown in Canada are hulled varieties, but we are interested in hulless or naked oats,” says Moquin. In hulless varieties, the oat kernel actually has a thin hull, which is loosely attached. It comes off during harvesting and is left on the field as chaff.
Ceapro prefers to use hulless varieties for a number of reasons. “To remove the hull from a hulled variety, mechanical systems are used which can damage the oat. Since oats are very high in oils, they can oxidize very quickly if the kernels are damaged. This creates a problem,” explains Moquin. There are also added costs to remove the hulls.
In addition, he notes, “The actives that we want – the oil and the polyphenols – are found in higher quantities in the hulless varieties.”
The company uses hulless oats grown on the Prairies. “Ceapro works through the Prairie Oat Growers Association to select oat growers who grow these varieties for us on a contract basis,” notes Gagnon.
These contracted growers work together to share ideas on the best production practices for hulless varieties, which require slightly different practices than hulled oats. For Ceapro’s new variety, the company conducted a small pilot project in 2014 to fine-tune these practices and to grow seed for 2015.
“We see fantastic potential for avenanthramides. In fact, our avenanthramide business has grown by 40 per cent this year over last year, and we expect this trend to be maintained over the next couple of years,” says Gagnon.
The potential lies not only in personal and animal care products, but also in nutritional and nutraceutical products because avenanthramides could have health benefits beyond skin care.
For example, Gagnon points to a recent U.S. study to assess the effects of avenanthramide supplementation for older women. The study found that daily dietary supplementation of avenanthramides for eight weeks reduced inflammation associated with walking and increased blood-borne antioxidant defence. Inflammation is an important concern in aging individuals because various diseases are associated with it.
“This research is further evidence of the anti-inflammatory properties of avenanthramides. It gives us a good starting point for future clinical trials with avenanthramides,” says Gagnon.
At present, Ceapro produces liquid avenanthramide solutions; however, the company is also developing powdered formulations for use in capsules and tablets aimed at the nutraceutical sector.
As Ceapro’s business grows, the company will likely need greater quantities of hulless oats. Ceapro’s oat products might also help boost demand for oats as food, through increased consumer awareness of the grain’s nutritional components.
Moquin and Gagnon both emphasize the health benefits of eating oats. Oats have a strong nutritional profile, with vitamins, minerals, fibre, healthy fats, protein and carbohydrates, along with avenanthramides and other bioactives.
Moquin thinks hulless oats are the varieties of the future. For example, he notes that a Canadian company currently produces hulless oats that can be cooked like rice, but are more nutritious than rice.
He notes, “I think there is a strong future for oats, especially in the food area, where they are still not a common food. If oats were a bigger part of our diets, it would be a benefit to everyone.”
In Saskatchewan, specialty crop producers with honeybees, organics, orchards and other sensitive crops have a new communication strategy to help address risks and provide special protection from nearby pesticide applications and potential spray drift. This collaborative program, DriftWatch Saskatchewan, is improving communication between producers and pesticide applicators.
“We began our discussion of a DriftWatch type program in 2012, after a season of higher than normal insecticide related bee incidents,” explains Geoff Wilson, provincial specialist, apiculture, with the Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture, at Prince Albert. “After some initial discussions with Bayer CropScience, we identified the concept of better communication between beekeepers and applicators as a good place to begin risk mitigation. We looked at potential implementation options including developing our own program. In our search we came across DriftWatch as an interesting alternative.”
DriftWatch was developed by Purdue University in Indiana and is now run by a non-profit organization. This system is free to use for both the producer with sensitive areas and the pesticide applicator. Current membership in DriftWatch includes 12 U.S. states, primarily in the Midwest, while Saskatchewan is the first province to adopt such a communication tool in Canada. DriftWatch Saskatchewan allows producers to highlight areas needing special protection from pesticide drift so that pesticide applicators know these locations before making application decisions.
“Very early on, we brought together key stakeholders, including the Saskatchewan Beekeepers Association, the Saskatchewan Aerial Applicators Association and other government staff, to develop a collaborative approach to implementation,” says Wilson. “Bayer CropScience and Dow AgroSciences were part of the collaboration from the beginning, and provided funding support to make the membership and software available to Saskatchewan producers and applicators for the pilot project.”
DriftWatch Saskatchewan, a two-year pilot project, was launched in 2014 for the production season. Under this voluntary program, producers with honeybees, organics, orchards and other specialty crops can register online. To register and upload their land location, producers go to www.DriftWatch.com, register as a user, fill out some characteristics of the location (i.e. honeybees, organics, etc.) and draw their location on the online map. DriftWatch is a risk mitigation tool that improves communication about the best options to reduce the risk of pesticide damage, but is not a guarantee that there will be no future pesticide incidents.
“We have data stewards for the various specialty crops and areas of concern to make sure the proper information is uploaded and only those eligible are using the program,” explains Wilson. “This system is intended for agricultural producers and not homeowners or people on sites of less than half an acre. I am the data steward for the bees, and other specialists are stewards for fruit production, organics and other special crops areas.”
Once the information is uploaded, then aerial applicators can access the map interface and additional tools and use this information in their application plans. It improves communication and allows applicators to talk to beekeepers to manage sensitive areas, change their plans if the wind is in the wrong direction or implement other strategies to reduce the risk of spray drift. The system is dynamic, and producers can go in anytime and update their information as they move beehives around or change crops, for example.
The uptake in the first year of the pilot project has been very good. For the 2014 DriftWatch program, Saskatchewan had the third highest number of apiaries registered of all 13 registered members. “We are pleased with the results of the first year and in particular the excellent collaboration between all of the stakeholders,” says Wilson. “Part of the collaboration was bringing the stakeholders together early on and making sure the program is what the beekeepers and special crop producers need and the same with the aerial applicators. The feedback so far in the first year has generally been very positive, although the late spring and general season conditions meant we ended up with fewer applications this year.”
The Saskatchewan DriftWatch pilot project will continue in 2015, and at the end of the season stakeholders will evaluate the it and make the next decisions. “The collaborative approach has been one of the best aspects for me, and the efforts of the stakeholders to work together to address the concerns,” says Wilson. “The collaboration continues in various ways including my invitation to speak at the Aerial Applicators Association in November (2014), and the Aerial Applicators Association has been invited to the upcoming beekeepers convention. It is wonderful that they are continuing the conversation and working together to address these issues. DriftWatch shows a lot of promise for Saskatchewan stewardship efforts.”
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Royal Manitoba Winter FairMon Mar 27, 2017
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