Defend agriculture by communicating

I grew up in a small agricultural community, spent seven years in Canada’s best agriculture college at the University of Saskatchewan and was a research scientist for about eight years.

I do not consider myself an agricultural or scientific expert, but I do think agriculture, and the way we talk about it, is important.

The way we communicate and look for information is changing. More than ever, people are going to the internet for their daily news. When we want to know something, what do we do? We used to use an encyclopedia, now we use Google. This is a fundamental change and not a passing fad.

When the public, including policy makers and politicians, searches for biotechnology or agriculture topics on the internet, what do they find?

Unfortunately, they are not finding a balanced conversation about agriculture or science. Several anti-agriculture science groups have caught on to the power of social media and are using it to influence public opinion.

They are using successful ways to spread fear and half-truths about how producers treat their animals and land, and there is little opposing information to balance things out.

I nervously joined Twitter about two years ago. I quickly found a small but mighty agriculture community online — farmers, nutritionists and agvocates. How wonderful.

But the community is small, most of them are from the United States, and there is a noticeable lack of agriculture scientists.

Producers and ag researchers need to get more involved.

Public opinion does affect government policy. Government policy does affect agriculture research funding and regulation. Research and informed public policy are keys to producers’ ability to provide safe and nutritious food in a responsible way and to remain competitive in the national and international marketplace.

So why does social media matter?

Because now, when the public, policy makers and politicians Google science and agriculture topics, these little things called blogs and tweets show up in the search results. What kind of information do you want them to see?

The question is where to start. I suggest getting involved, slowly if you need to. Bite the bullet. Use Google. Find trusted agricultural organizations. Read a producer’s blog (try Shaun Haney at www.realagriculture.com or @shaunhaney. Find farmers’ blogs at www.causematters.com). If you do not use the internet, tell someone else about it. Maybe they are interested.

Be a leader, and help others become leaders. The practice of leadership challenges us to listen to, understand and respect others, even if we have differences of opinion. Authentic leaders leave their egos at the door. Passionate, honest, humble and courageous people rarely need to sell anything.

We can rethink communication. In the science community we spend a lot of time discussing how we can make the public understand science. We say, “if only the people understood the science, all of our problems would be solved.”

I suggest emphasis could be less on making the public understand science and agriculture at a detailed level. Farming is complicated. Does the public want to understand this complicated subject at a detailed level? I think that most people don’t have a lot of time for this much in-depth learning.

But people, including me, are curious about you, why you do what you do and what you think about all of this controversy around food.

Tell your story. We’re listening.

Kari Doerksen is senior project manager for Valgen, a genomics research project.

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