The consumer and GMOs: adrift in a sea of misinformation

Last month, I had the opportunity to present to a group of registered dieticians and nutritionists at the Alberta Milk sponsored event, the Nutrition File Seminar.  It was a great opportunity to connect with those that work directly with consumers and have to tackle some of the most difficult questions about how our food is produced every day!

I shared the podium with some really smart folks: Terry Fleck with the Center for Food Integrity, Dr. Steve Savage, Dr. Herman Barkema of the University of Calgary and Shirzad Chunara from Alberta’s Ministry of Agriculture. We were all there to answer those questions that consumers often ask about food and food production.

My topic? GMOs. Link to the presentation is HERE.


The topic of GMOs is a complex one.  Many of the sites listed on the first 10+ pages of a simple Google search will point to statements like “GMOs have not been proven safe” or “they have not been tested safe for consumption.”  GMOs are often referred to as dangerous, toxic or even as time bombs. Many state that GMOs must be “immediately outlawed or banned.”  All this serves to do is to create unnecessary fear in the minds of the consumer. And it most certainly is not a true representation of the science and how genetic engineering and genetically engineered crops have and can benefit farmers and consumers – and society more broadly.

Every major international science body in the world has reviewed multiple independent studies—in some cases numbering in the hundreds—in coming to the consensus conclusion that GMO crops are as safe or safer than conventional or organic foods.” – Jon Entine, Forbes.

Here is a partial list of those organizations worldwide that Jon refers to:


B.J. Murphy (@SciTechJunkie) lists some of the statements that those organizations make in support of GMOs here.

I like to quote author and journalist, Michael Specter who says: “We’ve never lived in a time where we needed science so badly.”

Yes. And we have never lived in a time when we are in a position to so readily deploy science in such meaningful ways.  Yet, we are often blocked by a loud but vocal minority of individuals and organizations that have the capacity to influence the public’s opinion on such things.

It’s good to remember that…

“…no single agricultural technology or farming practice will provide sufficient food for 2050…instead we must advocate for and utilize a range of these technologies in order to maximize yields.” Mark Rosegrant, Director, International Food Policy Research Institute (2014). 

Everyone wants a safe and healthy food supply. But people also need to have access to accurate information in order to make informed choices about their food. Want to know more (facts) about genetic engineering, GMOs, regulatory bits and bites and other related stuff? Check out my five part series on GMOs and public perceptions: Part 1, Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5.

Arrivederci Italia!

Some may argue that the ICABR presents just one side of an ongoing debate about food production, technology and trade.  Some would say that maybe the conference is a bit imbalanced in terms of representation.  Does balance then come with the fact that the Conference was set in Ravello, a designated GM-free zone? Perhaps not. But it is certainly an interesting dichotomy.

View from my balcony. Oh yeah. Awesome!

We arrived on the Amalfi coast on Sunday afternoon, a bit worse for wear after the heat of Capri which was compounded by an overindulgence in wine and food over the weekend.  The ferry heaved its way along the Italian coastline, passing by Positano (of “Under the Tuscan Sun” fame). Fortunately, my stomach behaved itself and I was able to enjoy the 1.5 hour journey.

Since its inception 16 years ago, the International Consortium on Agricultural Bioeconomy Research (ICABR), with the exception of only a year or two, has been hosted in Ravello, Italy.  Relatively speaking, it’s a small conference set in a small Italian community attracting around 120 academics, government and industry folks from all over the world.  The “home” for the event was the newly established Oscar Niemeyer Auditorium.

Sculpture by Igor Mitoraj at the Auditorium

I co-authored two papers for this conference. One on the development of science-based policies and regulations in developing countries and the other – perhaps a bit of a departure for both me and this conference – on university policy and incentives around social media practice.

But this gastro-academic odyssey from Spain to Ravello, Italy was not only about work.  I was able to catch up with some colleagues and enjoy some pretty great food and wine.  In fact, my room at the Graal had a spectacular view of the Mediterranean so I often hosted the colleagues (@lfec77 @karidoerksen etc) for a late afternoon siesta and drinks on my balcony (yes, we may have skipped out on the odd plenary session or two). Apparently, we were having too much of a good time because the uptight British couple in the room next to me complained; yelling from their balcony:

“How are we supposed to enjoy reading our books with all that racket going on!”

If they had listened a bit more closely, they might have discovered that what we were talking about was far more interesting than any ol’ book! #whatissharedonbalconyoverlookingMediterraneaninItalystaysinItaly

In addition to generating wine-induced noise pollution, we also enjoyed walking through the maze of narrow streets that ran through Ravello, seeking out new places to sample Italian fare and poking through ceramic/tile stores.  We managed to hit a “Wine and Drugs” store where we sampled some of the finest wines in Italy.  The bottles ranged from 90 Euros to well over 250 Euros.  And the “drugs” in “Wine and Drugs”, you ask? Our host claimed that the “drug” was this absolutely amazing balsamic vinaigrette that he offered us (he may have been pulling our naïve Canadian legs, though).  Anyway, the vinaigrette was spectacular.  It was as thick as maple syrup and it beautifully cloaked those gorgeous bits of pungent cheese.  These tidbits were the perfect match to our wine samples.

Overall, the ICABR in Ravello was a great experience.  I finally met Klaus Ammann face-to-face.  Ingo Potrykus gave a wonderful update on GoldenRice (due to arrive in the Philippines in 2013, after 14 years of red tape and political-regulatory wranglings). These latter two folks spoke in one of the parallel sessions. It thought it a shame that not everyone was able to listen to these gentlemen speak.  Alan Olmstead – an economic historian – also closed the conference with a great keynote on opposition to technology from a historical standpoint.  He reminded us of the controversy and once very vocal opposition to technologies and scientific advances of the past: Galileo’s telescope, the tractor, the railroad, TB vaccinations, etc.  Olmstead’s summary of these stories really put things in perspective.

The last session of the program was, by far, the most interesting: “The Political Economy of Biotechnology in International Agricultural Agencies.” This overview on what are presumed to be ‘quiet diplomacy’ strategies by international agencies was presented by Regina Birner and Jock Anderson. Responses to the paper came from a panel that included representatives from the FAO, IFPRI, the World Bank and the European Union.  The icing on the cake was when Tassos Haniotis of the European Union referred to – not once but twice – our joint paper on university policy and incentives for scientists to communicate (Ryan and Doerksen).  What a great way to end a conference! #validated!

So, I find myself in Rome – yet again – with one last night to enjoy Italy before I head home tomorrow.  It’s been two weeks. It’s time.  I miss my family, my critters and my own bed.  And the questionable odors emanating from my suitcase suggests that it is time to do laundry, too.

Quote of the day: “For us to go to Italy and to penetrate into Italy is like a most fascinating act of self-discovery — back, back down the old ways of time. Strange and wonderful chords awake in us, and vibrate again after many hundreds of years of complete forgetfulness.” – D.H. Lawrence

“Isola de Capri – Bellisima!”

When our ferry docked at Capri’s port, Marina Grande, it was clear that I had arrived somewhere special. Rising out of the Mediterranean Sea like an uncut diamond, Capri (meaning “Goat”) is unlike any place I have ever been in the world.


It is rumored that the island attracts as many as 50,000 tourists a day during the summer months. People-watching can be a full-time venture here on the island. Capri’s luxurious and linen-laden patrons captivated me. I am most impressed with the ability of the women to not only balance elegantly on 5 inch stilettos, but they do so as they traverse the steep inclines and rough cobblestones that snake through Capri central.

It is difficult to not get a bit wrapped up in the opulence.  In Capri, you are surrounded by the ‘bling’ and flash of jewels, stunning gem-encrusted sandals and glamourous togs that taunt you from behind gleaming windows.  We inadvertently immersed ourselves in this ‘lavish’ game by grabbing a table at the Grand Quisisana, a five-star hotel situated at the heart of Capri. Wanting to step outside the norm a bit, we asked the waiter what he suggested we try for a drink.  “The drink of a Princesse of course!” He flashed a charming smile and proffered a suggestive wink. Ah, you gotta love Italian charm!

The drink was delicious.  Champagne with baby strawberries.  Fantastico! And only 40 Euros a glass. ?!?!?! Oy. I wasn’t feeling particularly regal after we got that bill.

The daytime crowd in Capri is completely different from the nighttime crowd. As evening falls on Capri, this fair town dips its toe in the silky-sweet chocolate of romance. Couples stroll and canoodle in the softening light of the evening; couples of all sizes, shapes and leanings.  I was fascinated by one couple in particular.  She – 5’10’, brunette, stunning, chic and maybe maybe 21 years of age. He – 5’2”, old.  I didn’t know whether I should high-five him or scold her for being out past her bedtime.

Capri’s history is interesting. It was a favourite retreat of the once Roman Emperor, Tiberius. He retired to the island from Rome and spent his final years in debauchery on the island, hosting orgies and throwing people from cliffs. But Capri’s less than tasteful past (at the hands of Tiberius) in no way taints the extraordinary beauty of the island.

The Grotta Azurra (Blue Grotto) is magnificent.  I recommend it for anyone who plans to visit this island.  It is a sea cave on the coast where sunlight can pass through underwater creating a blue reflection that illuminates the cavern.  Getting into the Grotto is half the fun.  Once in, you are in for a treat as the guides serenade you with Italian opera as you glide through the azure waters. Then there are the Faraglioni, three spurs of rock which ascend out of the sea just off the the island’s Southern coast. Magnificent and majestic. More photos here.

Today, we head to Ravello on the Amalfi coast.  I will miss Capri. But I am hoping that my pocketbook will get a bit of a break on the next leg of my journey.

Addio Capri il mio appassionato, stravagante amante!

Quote of the day: “What is the fatal charm of Italy? What do we find there that can be found nowhere else? I believe it is a certain permission to be human, which other places, other countries, lost long ago.” Erica Jong

Burning at the Basilica

Rome. June 21st. It is a reported 34 degrees Celsius in this great city. Oy. And I swear that the temperature rose another 5 degrees as I stepped onto the Piazza San Pietro.

With less than 24 hours in Rome, it was difficult for me to decide how exactly I should spend my time in this historic city. The first thing that I do in a new-to-me place when I travel is I find a map. But after taking a look, I am boggled by the sheer number of Cathedrals, hills, piazzas, ruins, and other sites that dot the map; the many sites that evolved out of Rome’s 3000 year history of debauchery, political upheaval and – let’s face it – the city’s amazing capacity for technological development and social change.

I settled on St. Peter’s Basillica, hopped a city bus and made my way to the west part of Rome. As we rambled over the Ponte Vittorio Emanuele that spans the Tiber, I could see the dome of St. Peter’s rising up out of the crops of buildings that populate Vatican city. To my right, Castel St. Angelo.

At our stop at the end of the bridge, I lost sight of St. Peter’s. I approached a nun and asked in halting spang-talian, “Scusi. Dove si trova está la Basílica?”

The nun smiled at me and, in almost perfect English, said…

“Yes, my dear. Just go up this street and turn left at the corner. It is larger than life. You will see it.”

She sensed that responding in Italian just wouldn’t help me out at all. Good call.

Via della Conciliazione is the street that runs directly to St. Peter’s. I decided to break for lunch before heading to the Basilica. While I picked away at my insalata nicoise and sipped white wine, a total of 12 priests and 18 nuns walked by (but who’s counting?). One of the nuns (an older one, by the way) was texting furiously on a mobile device. I found this odd and amusing all at the same time.

View of St. Peter’s Basilica from Via della Conciliazione

But nothing prepared me for St. Peter’s Basilica. Standing in the Piazza, taking in the sheer scale and its historical significance was absolutely unbelievable. It was almost surreal. I roamed about taking photos and marveling at its design and details. Remarkable. Of course, my next mission was to get inside the Basilica. Unfortunately, this was ‘impossibile’. I had on a tank top and shorts. I really should have done my homework ahead of time. So my fellow travelers, take note! If you are ever in Rome and want to enter into St. Peter’s Basilica, don’t forget that there is a dress code.

Piazza San Pietro

I spent a good hour and a half in St. Peter’s Square and the heat was almost suffocating (I didn’t have any sunscreen on either). I opted for a ‘hop on, hop off’ tour bus to make my way back in the direction of Roma Termini. This was a great way to see the city in a short period of time (it included audio tour). We weaved through Rome’s narrow streets passing by the Foro Romano (new to me), the Colloseum (wow), and the Campidoglio (impressive) (photos here). I really liked seeing the Circo Massimo, the place where they held chariot races so many centuries ago. At the time, the facility could accommodate almost 300,000 spectators!

Update: I just found out that there is a public transportation train strike on today in Rome. I am not sure what this means in terms of getting to Naples as was planned. I await my colleagues’ arrival today at noon and we will carve out a strategy. Worst case scenario: we stay another night in Rome. I’m ok with that.

No burning need to leave this great city.

Quote of the day: “Traveling is like flirting with life. It’s like saying, ‘I would stay and love you, but I have to go; this is my station.” – Lisa St. Aubin de Teran

“Vicky ‘Camilla’ Barcelona” – Javier, where are you?

Barcelona is colourful, in a terra-cotta kind of way.

I arrived early this morning and, like other times when I travel afar, I found myself a bit dazed and confused.  Even though my ticket said that I would be arriving early in the day, I found it difficult to discern whether it was – in fact – morning or if it was early evening.  The sun cast odd (to me) hues across the concrete-scape of Barcelona metro as the buildings whipped by my taxi window at a dizzying rate. They are deceiving colours, ones that can play time-tricks on the mind.

The Hotel Alexandra is lovely and I really wanted to get to my room and crash. But I had to kill a few hours before I could check in.  That meant staving off this impending jet-lag which, no doubt, accounted for my disorientation.  Jet-lag always makes me feel as if someone has stuffed cotton into my nose and ears, clear up to the grey matter.

I headed out on foot with a goal of making it to the Picasso Museum.  I made my way down Av. Diagonal towards the older part of Barcelona.  High-end stores line this main drag but lucky for me (and my pocketbook) none were open. It was too early. I passed by Casa Batlló, a building restored by the infamous architect Antoni Gaudi, and noticed that the structure was already drawing a crowd outside even at such an early hour. Wow.  Gaudi’s gift of architectural art is well-known all over the world and his works are certainly sights to behold in Barcelona (Gaudi Park comes highly recommended – I will try to get there this week as well).

Casa Batlló, restored by Gaudi (Barcelona)

I spent a bit of time people-watching (and resting my tired hoofies) at the Plaça de Catalunya which is a large square in central Barcelona and near Las Rablas. Then I made my way to Le Seu Cathedral which is in the center of the Barri Gòtic (Gothic district).  What a stunning structure! I love Cathedrals.  Especially Gothic Cathedrals.  When you enter Le Seu, the silence is deafening. It almost feels like you have been cloaked in heavy velvet as you pass through its portal. And I don’t know where I have been for the past several years but it appears that technology has a firm foothold in the Cathedrals.  The faithful can now insert coins – as signs of prayer or reflection – and one or more electric candles will temporarily light up. Call me old fashioned, but I still favour a more traditional approach: sulfur, glass powder and oxidizer put to wick and wax.

I can’t say enough about the Picasso Museum.  It was the highlight of my day.  I am not as familiar with the Degas-esque part of Picasso’s career but it was interesting to view the evolution of this artist’s life through his work.  From muted tones in the late 19th century, to wild shots of colour coming into his works at the turn of the century (influenced by his time in Paris) and then there was the blue period…all this evolving into the oddly childlike, yet powerful works that most of us probably are most familiar with when one conjures up visions of “Picasso”.

Hopefully, time will permit me to blog again this week.  The conference programme is pretty full and I still have some preparations to do before I present on Wednesday (not to mention, a report to write by week’s end).  In the meantime, check out more photos at:

By the way, no sign of Javier Bardem.  Damn it.

SIGN OF THE DAY: “Professional baggage stealers operate in this place” (Starbucks, Barcelona)

Achieving Coexistence of Biotech, Conventional &Organic Foods in the Marketplace

Mark your calendar, folks!

GMCC 11 – Co-existence 2.0 Conference


“Achieving Coexistence of Biotech, Conventional & Organic Foods in the Marketplace”

October 26 – 28, 2011

Vancouver, B.C



Topics that will be discussed in the plenary and parallel sessions of GMCC-11 include

  • Experiences and lessons from coexistence policy making around the world
  • Regulation, liability, and the market—what works best?
  • Economic and trade issues of low level presence and relevant policies
  • Economics and policies of adventitious presence thresholds and tolerances
  • Coexistence: best practices in various supply chains



Random (and not necessarily ag-related) observations at Crop Updates 2011

February 24, 2011

At the Pioneer Hibred booth in the exhibitors area, the company hosted it’s version of the jelly-bean-jar-count. Not using jelly beans, of course. The jar in question must have contained hundreds of thousands of canola seeds. I didn’t even wager a guess. I felt a little sorry for the bloke that had to count all those little suckers though. Presumably there’s an app for that. ;0)

I am slowly growing accustomed to the heat and humidity here. However, dressing for the Australian elements and sitting in cool, air-conditioned conference rooms doesn’t quite mesh. I find myself regularly popping out to the front terrace at the Burswood to ‘warm up’. Dress in layers, Cami!

On a VERY unrelated note, the bathrooms, connected to the Burswood conference facilities, were not as impressive as I thought they would be. An observation that I made of this bathroom and others in Australia, though, is that the facilities are ‘genderized’. They aren’t marked “men” and “women”. Rather, they are labeled “male” and “female”. I was most interested, upon entering the “female” bathroom at the Burswood, to find a unique dispenser aptly called a ‘Vanity Bar’ (see photo below). Quite classy and a far cry from some of the banged up and abused tampon/condom dispensers you find in public washrooms at home in Canada (especially along Highway #7). Look at these options, ladies… deodorant, perfume, vanity packs of hairpins, etc and LIPGLOSS…