Maybe it’s time for farmers to stand up for science

So here’s what I read on the back of the cereal box I got out to feed my kids breakfast yesterday: YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO KNOW WHAT’S IN YOUR FOOD. Unfortunately, we don’t have this right when it comes to buying food containing GMOs – plants or animals engineered through the gene splicing techniques of biotechnology. WHY THE CONCERN? The long term health and environmental effects haven’t been properly tested. That’s why over 64 countries (but not Canada) have placed significant restrictions, labelling laws or outright bans on GMOs. AVOID GMOS – EAT ORGANIC! And it continues by promoting an anti-GMO film called GMO OMG. With a cute pic of a kid like one of my kids, eating an ice cream cone. There are no outright lies or factual falsehoods in that paragraph above, since it is very vaguely worded, but it is certainly – at least to me – misleading in saying “the long term health and environmental effects haven’t been properly tested.” All sorts of regulators and health authorities in Canada, the U.S., Europe and Japan have looked extensively at genetically modified foods and determined that there is not only no increased risk due to the GM process by which certain crop varieties have been developed, but also no reason to believe there would be a risk. Based on scientific analysis and understanding, there’s nothing to worry about. And after 20 years of these crops being consumed by hundreds of millions of people, no adverse effects have been noticed. Yet the sort of sentiment expressed on the cereal box – which is a very good cereal, by the way – is often voiced out in the public by product marketers and it is steadily creating a widespread belief that GMOs are somehow dangerous or possibly dangerous. With zero evidence that GMOs are actually bad for human health, these claims are almost always based on the claim that proper testing hasn’t been done. It’s part of that phenomenon where if a Big Lie is repeated loudly and long enough, it becomes seen as fact by much of society. (I note at this point that some people who push the big misrepresentations appear to believe what they’re saying and don’t realize their views are based on unexamined assumptions and unchallenged myths, while others appear to be people who cynically and ruthlessly exploit the myths, assumptions and romantic notions about food and farming that drift through society in order to promote some product or cause they are invested in.) The danger to farmers is this: across the U.S. GMO labelling laws are being pushed and creating complications and costs in the food system, causing disruptions to the food system that provides people with affordable food and farmers with a predictable market. Farmers can benefit by selling into the niche markets established by anti-GMO fears, anti-pesticide fears, anti-large-farm sentiments and other emotion-based beliefs, and that’s a good thing to do. It’s a good strategy for farmers to specialize in serving certain specialty markets. But for farming in general, it’s a terrible situation, because it’s an attack on science and rationality, and those are the tools that are making North American farmers the best, most efficient, most environmentally sustainable farmers on the planet. Farmers need scientific advancement to have a positive future, but that advancement is being undermined by the plethora of campaigns being undertaken against agricultural methods and practices that are based on positions that are clearly irrational and anti-scientific. Scientific advancement is behind so much of what is good, central and essential in today’s agriculture, from conservation tillage to reduced pesticide use to high-yielding crops and precision fertilizer placement. GMOs are just part of that, but if farmers allow the public to drift too far into irrational attitudes about food,  mixing up spiritual and romantic views with scientific and rational considerations when it comes to regulations and laws, the steady progress of agriculture itself is threatened. Farmers can help with this effort by defending the science of what they do. They can do this by visiting local schools and talking to students, by showing what they do on webpages, by Tweeting on Twitter, by putting up Youtube videos. I don’t think farmers should be shy or embarrassed about the chemicals they use or the GMO crops they grow. Those things should be proclaimed and their improvements versus past and alternative production systems highlighted. How many chemicals did you used to have to use to grow your crop? How many do you have to use now? How do biotechnology and refined pesticide applications combine to allow zero and minimum till, versus what you’d have to do otherwise. People in the general public are more open-minded than many in farming and agriculture give them credit for. Many are willing to listen. I’ve written about this before, but I think it’s worth saying again (and again and again), because there is such a battery of firepower arrayed against science and rationality in agriculture that if farmers don’t help fight back, they could lose access to that science and the advancement it brings. European Union farmers have been hamstrung for years by wacky laws and regulations that stop them using many of the products and tools presently employed in places like North America, even though their scientific regulators have often approved or supported the technologies they are forbidden from using. And U.S. farmers are facing a widespread onslaught on GMO crops, in the form of labelling laws that undermine confidence and demand as well as distribution, that threatens to roll back their ability to grow crops that offer huge gains in production efficiency and environmental protection. Somehow a sea of irrationality has swelled up and is threatening to wash over the – to this point – steadily advancing agriculture sector and farmers can do their bit at fighting the flood.



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