Agriculture in the Classroom in a pickle over GM apple

An Agriculture in the Classroom webinar drew fire last week because of its content involving the controversial Arctic Apple, a variety genetically modified to be non-browning.

The Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN) said the webinar content had inappropriate product placement and collaborated with Council of Canadians and several other groups in sending a letter to provincial education ministers asking them to withdraw support.

“The example that was used is a brand name corporate product that was being presented by marketing staff from the company. We think that was an inappropriate level of corporate involvement in this webinar,” said CBAN co-ordinator Lucy Sharratt in an interview.

“The webinar did focus on the apple production chain, which I think is important and interesting but … the webinar was not carefully constructed to provide unbiased information or information that was removed from the company that actually is marketing the GM apple,” she said.

Johanne Ross, executive director of Agriculture in the Classroom Canada, said mention of the Arctic Apple in the webinar, presented as part of month-long agricultural literacy efforts, was an example of how technology can help address food waste.

“This is not an infomercial about a product,” said Ross. “We’re just using the Arctic Apple as an example to talk about innovation and the gene silencing that happens to actually get the non-browning trait. That’s just part of a bigger discussion.”

The webinar, comprising about 45 slides, included four specific to the apple, said Ross.

The main speaker for the webinar, presented to high school students on March 7, was Jessica Brady, a member of the marketing and communications team for Okanagan Specialty Fruits, the company that developed and is marketing the Arctic Apple.

“I think everyone would agree that product promotion is not a legitimate activity in classrooms so if corporations are going to be part of presenting information to students through Ag in the Classroom, the question is, what is that role of those companies? Are they credible sources?” Sharratt asked.

Ross said the program’s funders operate under official donor guidelines requiring them to embrace AIC’s mandate to provide accurate, balanced and current information.

“We call it our ABC principal,” said Ross.

“It’s based on science and it gives multiple views so that the students can have their own robust discussion behind it. And then they can make their own decisions for all the right reasons.”

Ross said the letter sent to education ministers, which was sent by CBAN, the Council of Canadians, Earth Action PEI, the MacKillop Centre for Social Justice and Kids Right to Know, elicited only one query to AIC.

That came from the Prince Edward Island provincial education department.

“They were very comfortable with what we had provided them and there’s been absolutely no communication to me in terms of any education departments getting involved,” Ross said.

Sharratt said her group got two responses. The Nova Scotia education ministry said it did not promote the webinar and the Newfoundland and Labrador ministry asked for more information.

“I don’t know how clear standards are but we thought it was important to alert students and teachers and ministers of what we thought was pretty clear product placement in this case,” she said.

“Schools are a very clear market for this GM apple so it was particularly alarming that the … product placement was so up front.”

Sharratt also noted development of the Arctic Apple has been controversial, even in agriculture circles, so AIC information should recognize that in its programming.

Ross said that is the goal.

“We’re very interested in telling the whole story of agriculture,” she said.

Attention to the AIC program from other groups has raised its profile, said Ross.

“I’ve been told a number of times that I guess this means we’re doing good work, because we’re being noticed. We have absolutely nothing to hide. That’s why it hasn’t been hard to speak to it, because we’re very, very proud of the resources and the programming that we’re offering to schools across the country.”

Ag in the Classroom programming is carried out by farmers and volunteers with limited staff support. Ross praised that involvement.

Sharratt noted that as well, with a proviso.

“We do know that there’s a lot of farmers and volunteers involved. And all of the work that farmers and volunteers do with Ag in the Classroom could be undermined if corporate interests are using it to promote their products to students,” she said.

“That was our concern that was flagged by this webinar. We don’t yet have a perspective on how far that may be a problem inside the program itself.”

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