Ag + education = confusion

WINNIPEG — “Have you ever seen Food Inc.?”

Considering it’s 8:30 a.m. at Westwood Collegiate in Winnipeg, the students in the home economics classroom are reasonably alert and responsive when asked if they’ve watched the 2009 documentary film.

Most of the students in the Grade 12 foods class, a mix of boys and girls, raise their hand to say they’ve seen Food Inc.,which condemned food production practices in North America as inhumane and unsustainable.

The students’ response isn’t shocking, seeing how Food Inc.was nominated for an Academy Award as best documentary in 2009. Yet, it is surprising that almost every student viewed the film in class at Westwood Collegiate. One student in the foods class stopped eating meat about a year ago, around the same time she watched the documentary.

Food Inc. argued that factory farms and food companies have hijacked modern agriculture and painted a revealing but ugly portrait of food production in America.

Johanne Ross, Agriculture in the Classroom executive director for Manitoba, is aware that Manitoba teachers are showing Food Inc.because she’s had to deal with the fallout, such as students who became vegetarians after watching the movie.

“There are a lot of good things about that movie,” Ross said. “There’s a lot of truth in that movie, but there are misconceptions in the movie.”

It’s hard to know where and when Manitoba students are watching the movie, but thousands of teens have likely seen it in Grade 10 geography, because food from the land is a required teaching unit in the course.

“Teachers have to teach that (unit) and they have a curriculum outlined for them,” Ross said.

“But of course, they want to augment that (material) and that’s where Food Inc.comes in. To bring Food Inc.into the classroom has certainly caused some misrepresentations (about agriculture) in that age group.”

John Stairs, who teaches Grade 10 geography at Westwood, defended the film as a useful teaching tool.

For instance, he said, one segment talks about chickens and how the chicken breast is now four times larger than it was in the past because of feeding practices and genetics.

“That’s good information for the kids….Food Inc.is a very good video in that it shows how big the agri-industry has become…. It also you gives you an idea of what farmers are up against,” said Stairs, sitting at a table inside the home economics room at Westwood, surrounded by sewing machines, kitchen sinks and stoves.

“It is one-sided … but as a teacher it’s not our job to tell students what to think. It’s our job to get them to think.”

Andrea Overby, who teaches foods at Westwood, also shows the movie in her classes. She admitted it offers a biased perspective on American’s food industry, but it is also a dynamic and recent film that stimulates her students to talk about food production.

Now thatFood Inc.has unofficially become part of the curriculum at dozens of Canadian schools, Ross and other Agriculture in the Classroom leaders have taken steps to counter its message.

As part of a national effort, the Agriculture in the Classroom website now has a section dedicated toFood Inc.

It addresses myths and misinformation in the movie and contains links to organizations such as the Ontario Farm Animal Council for more information on related topics.

Ross is also concerned that agriculture isn’t part of the education curriculum in Manitoba. It might be covered, somewhat, in Grade 10 geography, but one unit isn’t sufficient.

She said if agricultural education was made mandatory, Manitoba teachers could provide a broad perspective on a subject that affects students every time they pick up a fork.

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