I was invited to join Kevin Chorney on Calgary NOW this past week to discuss GMOs. I just starting giving public talks about the science of genetic engineering and its application in ag and food production. The topic “GMOs” is a controversial one. And, to be honest, depending upon who is involved and their respective agendas, things can get ugly pretty darn quick.
PROGRAM FORMAT: Fortunately, that didn’t happen in this case. Overall, the LIVE TV interview (my first) was a good experience. The folks at Calgary NOW were gracious and hospitable. But I think there were a couple of fundamental problems with the format of this particular program that are worthwhile highlighting:
The first thing is that we covered way too much ground in the time that we had. GMOs is a broad, complex topic that brings up a whole bunch of questions like:
- What is the science behind genetic engineering?
- Which crops that are genetically engineered for what traits and why?
- Where are GE crops grown?
- Are GMOs regulated? How? By who?
- What about patents and intellectual property?
- What about developing nations?
- How about ‘corporate control’ of seeds and farming?
- Then there’s a whole other realm of insights into GMOs that can’t be ignored.
- The tactics of interest groups, all the myths that are perpetuated in the media and, of course, public perceptions around ag and food production as a result.
Whew. Lots. And with only thirty minutes, we should have probably picked only one or two things and focused on those.
The second thing was that there seemed to be a mis-match in the expertise of guests. Brent was the other invited guest. He and his wife own and operate a gluten-free food wholesale company in Calgary. They provide local grocery stores and restaurants with gluten-free fresh food fare. Brent is a very knowledgeable chap with years of experience in the wholesale/retail food industry. I kept waiting for our host, Kevin, to link our expertise together in some way. It never really happened until later in the program when I figured out that they were trying to elude to a causal link between genetically modified foods and Celiac disease / gluten-intolerance.
Please note, currently there is no genetically engineered wheat on the market. For those of you that were watching and if it wasn’t made clear, I would like to convey this one factual bit (again): There has been no causal link established between genetically engineered food and harms to human health. None. Mountains of scientific evidence attest to the safety of GE crops and food (eg National Research Council 2004; European Commission 2010).
LESSONS LEARNED: My hubby ‘B’ (and #1 Fan) came with me to the Calgary NOW studio that night. He played ‘arm-chair quarterback.’ I like having him along as he always provides me with good, honest feedback. That night was no different:
B: “To the viewer, your presentation of the facts kind of made you look like a Monsanto supporter.”
Me: “What? Really?” […as Cami mentally back-peddles to review what was said]
In my efforts to participate in the dialogue and to share the facts as I know them, I think that I may have missed the mark in ‘good communication’. I am like many academics. We are often so busy mentally working to convey the facts accurately that sometimes we forget to frame and communicate broader more positive messages about the great things that science does for society. When I come off as a flag-waving fan of anything I am demonstrating bias. That was not the intent behind the information that I shared on the program. My intent is always to present the evidence; the facts. When I do that incorrectly, I am doing a disservice to all the good science that continues to be done in agriculture.
SETTING THE RECORD STRAIGHT: So, for those of you that actually watched the program, I would just like to clarify a few things:
- Many of the crop varieties that have been developed to improve ag productivity have been developed by the public sector (universities and public research institutes) and other international not-for-profit organizations. Canada is a leader in the world in these kind of developments. We should be proud of that.
- Syngenta, Dow, Bayer, Monsanto and other ‘big ag’ companies are just that – companies. They are profit-motivated and generate revenues to cover the costs of doing business and to provide a return for their shareholders. These companies, and others like Apple or MicroSoft, make no secret of that. And isn’t that the tenet of any business – big or small? Companies step into the space where the public sector can’t and won’t – they bring the products downstream to the market.
- Would I like to see more competition in the ag biotechnology industry? Of course! Who wouldn’t? But did you know that the time that it takes to put a product through the regulatory system has almost tripled in the last 20 years? And just to clarify, the system is no more robust than it ever was. But the political pressures that have been placed on governments by interest groups have forced a ‘slow down’ in the regulatory process. This means more costs. And, right now the only companies that have the resources to navigate the costly and complex regulatory processes are big ag.
- Nobody wants to see monopolistic control of seeds. Farmers have options. There are hundreds of unrestricted, off-patent and non-genetically-modified seeds that can be freely accessed. Farmers often use farm-saved seed (mostly cereals) as part of their crop rotation and risk management strategies. They choose to go with genetically modified varieties if they see it as a benefit to their operation. In fact, here is what Brian Scott, a multi-generational farmer from Indiana, says about it:
“…I look at it right now as division of labour. Seed companies are great at coming up with great products, and farmers are great at turning those products into a bounty of food, feed, fuel, and fibre.”
- And what about those damn patents? If someone (anyone) invents something, they should be able to protect that invention long enough to make back the investment for providing a valuable product to the market. Our intellectual property system, faults and all, is the only system that we have to protect our inventions for a limited period of time. How can we change that? Well, I’m not sure (definitely not my ‘wheelhouse’).
THE TENUOUS LINE BETWEEN FACT AND FAITH: We live in a world where faith is a part of our social fabric. As a researcher, though, I don’t have the luxury to believe anything. I am obligated to examine the evidence and present the facts. Period. In terms of what we consume and the products we buy, it is important that we distinguish between the facts and faith. A good illustrative example of this is in the development of bridges and buildings where structural efficacy depends on evidence based engineering science and not on faith. Our safety depends on it.
As for ag and food production, I will continue to present my knowledge on science and agriculture using an evidence-based approach. I will continue to convey messages like: if we still farmed using the inputs and techniques that we did in the 1950s, we would need 2 billion more hectares available to produce what we produce today. I will remind everyone that we need to raise global agricultural productivity by another 60% in order to meet demands for food in 2050. To meet those demands and other grand challenges (climate change, drought, pests and diseases the world over) in an environmentally friendly way, we need science; good science including genetic engineering techniques.
A RETURN TO CONVERSATION: Back to the Calgary NOW discussion(s). How, in hindsight, could we have changed the format to better suit the expertise that was at the table? Well, in my opinion, it might have been good to just narrow the talk down to the subject of ‘wheat’ – and just wheat. I think that Brent, Kevin and I could have had a great dialogue about Celiac disease and gluten intolerance and about the history, myths and facts around wheat development and production.
There are many of us out there that are trying to communicate the realities of ag and food production and/or science and we are all doing it in different ways. We have to continue to share our respective knowledge by participating in discussions on programs like Calgary NOW, by giving public talks, by sharing our stories and by having conversations. There are gaps in knowledge and many of us just don’t understand the bigger picture of ag and food production.
By the way, I put myself in that latter ‘camp’ too – so much yet to learn.
And I admit it. I might just need a little more media training. ;o)
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Other good sources as it relates to this post:
Want to know more about GM? Check out Emily Anthes’ article in the New York Post (March 9, 2013) “Don’t be Afraid of Genetic Modification”
Steve Savage gives a fantastic overview of the patent system as it relates to plants in his blog “A Defense of Plant and Crop Related Patents”
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National Research Council (2004). “Safety of Genetically Engineered Foods: Approaches to Assessing Unintended Health Effects.”
European Commission (2010). “A Decade of EU Funded GMO Research: 2001 – 2010.“