Organics not the enemy | Crop protection companies open doors to organic producers, environmentalists
Earlier this year, Ted Menzies, president and chief executive officer of CropLife Canada, said he wanted to move beyond the “them versus us” debate that divides conventional and organic agriculture.
Menzies, a former Conservative MP from Alberta, said he has taken action on that pledge and is listening to alternative agricultural voices.
“I like to think I can learn something from every farmer (regardless) of what their method of production is,” said Menzies, who became the leader of CropLife Canada, a trade association for seed development and crop protection companies, back in January.
Menzies has spoken directly with organic producers and with organizations that represent organic agriculture since taking the helm of CropLife Canada.
“I’ve had many discussions with many people from the organic side,” said Menzies, who used to farm nearly 6,000 acres near Claresholm, Alta.
“One of the larger (organic) co-operatives in Saskatchewan, the head of that organization and I had a long conversation about… how can we work together.”
Menzies may be talking to organic farmers, but the leaders of CropLife America, which represents the ag biotech and crop protection industry south of the border, has fully em-braced a policy of engagement.
Jay Vroom, CropLife America president and chief executive officer, said the trade association once thought organic agriculture was a threat to conventional.
The organization abandoned that thinking in the late 2000s.
“We’ve really moved to a position that is a lot smarter, which is our industry and everybody that’s in-volved in agriculture stands to do much better if we look for ways to collaborate and coexist,” Vroom said from his office in Washington, D.C.
As an example of its new approach, CropLife America held its annual national policy conference in Washington this spring and invited environmental groups and organic supporters to speak at the event.
The conference featured controversial topics, such as “consumers and farmers: where did it all go wrong?”
Seth Goldman, president of Honest Tea, a manufacturer of organic beverages, said the event was a refreshing break from standard ag industry affairs, where like-minded folks smile and glad hand.
“A lot of times conferences… feature people patting themselves on the back and congratulating themselves,” Goldman said.
“This gathering is different in that it invites open dialogue and transparency that’s hard to find.”
Vroom said the national policy conference is an opportunity for CropLife America members to challenge their long held philosophies.
“It’s helped us learn how to listen better. I don’t think we were tone deaf or completely deaf before, but it really has given us a place… (to) have a constructive dialogue with people we don’t normally run in to.”
Menzies said the Washington event inspired him to consider a similar conference in Canada.
“I came home and said to our people in the CropLife office, I think we need to do that too,” he said.
As part of CropLife America’s policy of engagement, Vroom visited the Rodale Institute this summer, an organic research centre in Pennsylvania. Vroom was impressed by the cover crop research at the centre and said all farmers can learn from each other.
Vroom’s words and CropLife America’s outreach are surprising, given the intense and often nasty debate in the media and Twitter between organic and conventional agriculture advocates.
Vroom said there is competition between organic and conventional, particularly in the branded food business and on grocery store shelves, but that rivalry isn’t as intense at the farm level.
“I don’t think there was ever as much tension as maybe was portrayed,” he said.
“Farmers are busy and, like most of us, tend to focus on what do I have to do today.”
Menzies agreed, noting he farmed near organic operations in Alberta and there was little or no hostility between producers.
“It’s a matter of choice…. Some farmers choose to farm with conventional methods and some choose to farm using organic practices,” he said. “The two are not mutually exclusive…. The two can function side by side.”
CropLife America may be willing to listen to organic points of view, but the organization will not tolerate scientific nonsense and groundless attacks on pesticides, genetically modified organisms and other aspects of conventional ag.
At a meeting in Arizona in August, Vroom said the industry has a duty to respond to ridiculous claims.
“The packaging on a brand of yogurt served at this event (in Arizona) claims no ‘toxic pesticides’ are used by their dairy farmer suppliers. I challenge those within the crop protection industry to take every occasion to respond, in face-to-face conversation or social media, and dispel commonly held myths about pesticides and why farmers use them. Whether it’s a discussion about labelling or crop protection, we need to level the playing field and that begins with speaking up.”