BLOG: Should public scientists talk to the public?

In November of 2015, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sent a mandate letter to each of his ministers, including Agriculture Minister Lawrence MacAulay.

In the letter, Trudeau made it clear that the federal government should be open and transparent.

“It is time to shine more light on government to ensure it remains focused on the people it serves. Government and its information should be open by default.”

It appears that a few people within Agriculture Canada never read the letter.

In the second week of November, the topic of hairy canola came up at a Keystone Agricultural Producers meeting in Portage la Prairie, Man.

Several years ago, researchers at the Agriculture Canada research centre in Saskatoon developed a trait that causes hairs to grow on the stems and leaves of canola plants, discouraging flea beetles from climbing the stem and eating canola leaves.

The technology was never commercialized because it was a genetically modified trait and seed companies weren’t interested in the regulatory hassle of registering a transgenic technology. Agriculture Canada scientists returned to the drawing board with the goal of developing a non-GM hairy canola.

Canola growers at the KAP meeting asked if the technology will ever be commercialized because the federal government has proposed to ban the use of neonicotinoid seed treatments, which are used to control flea beetles.

The beetles are a major pest and can cause $300 million worth of damage a year to canola crops.

Beekeepers are also interested in hairy canola. In the absence of neonic seed treatments, they’re worried that farmers will apply foliar insecticides to kill flea beetles, a practice that puts bees at risk.

Given the concerns and the interest in hairy canola, The Western Producer e-mailed an Agriculture Canada scientist in Saskatoon, to get an update on the research.

The scientist eventually responded, two weeks late and only after The Western Producer contacted three Agriculture Canada media reps and the head of the department’s science and technology branch.

The scientist provided a two sentence email update, saying he’s just starting to work on a new project, studying natural resistance in canola to flea beetles.

Fortunately for agricultural media and farmers, many Agriculture Canada scientists are much more open about their research. They make presentations at public meetings, appear at farm conferences and are available to explain their science to journalists.

Tim McAllister of Agriculture Canada’s research centre in Lethbridge, is an example.

He constantly speaks at farm meetings, travels around the globe talking about ruminant nutrition and has been quoted in hundreds of media reports.

McAllister and other Agriculture Canada experts, such as Henry Janzen, are similar to U.S. Department of Agriculture scientists, who respond to media requests 99 percent of the time.

A percentage of Agriculture Canada researchers, unfortunately, are nothing like McAllister, Janzen or USDA scientists.

They never speak at public meetings and are never quoted in the media.

A source within Agriculture Canada said these scientists aren’t opposed to sharing their research, but they don’t believe it’s a “priority.”

That’s an interesting perspective, seeing how taxpayers and commodity groups fund their research. It’s also a dangerous perspective, seeing how public trust in agricultural science is critical for public trust in agriculture.

In November the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity released a survey on public opinions of food and agriculture. The results showed that:

• Thirty-six percent of consumers believe the food system is on the right track.

• Twenty-three percent believe it’s on the wrong track.

More worrying for livestock producers, 49 percent of respondents said they’re concerned about the humane treatment of farm animals.

That’s a huge number and has massive implications for Canadian farmers. If consumers don’t believe that cattle, pigs or poultry are treated humanely, they’re more likely to stop eating beef, pork and chicken.

Hairy canola wasn’t part of the survey and it’s unlikely that anyone in Toronto has ever heard of hairy canola. But most Canadians know about neonicotinoids because the class of insecticides has been linked to bee colony losses and bee deaths.

Having a natural alternative to insecticides could be beneficial for canola growers and could, potentially, build public trust in canola production.

When federal government scientists speaks publicly about their research, whether it’s about the welfare of laying hens or greenhouse gases and cattle, it adds to the public discussion about modern agriculture and may actually sway a few minds.

That’s because public scientists have credibility and influence.

In certain cases, their expertise may confirm that the status quo is working, or they may challenge the ag industry to do better.

A percentage of researchers do use their power and do participate in the public arena. Others, obviously, are content to remain in the lab and publish papers in obscure academic journals, read by 37 fellow scientists.

Such papers may look good on a resumé but they contribute nothing to the public conversation about modern agriculture.

If a researcher isn’t sharing conclusions, data and expertise with the public, does the science and knowledge really matter?


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