4 Steps to Good Storytelling

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Last year, I was invited to share my science communication story at CropLife Canada’s Spring Dialogue Days. It was great to be standing in front of a crowd of 150+ of my peers, friends, and colleagues in the capitol of my homeland. I was home and all was right with the world.

In the days leading up to the event, however, I struggled to find the right blend of life events and lessons-learned to share with this crowd. What would be most meaningful?

The past 20+ years has been a rich tapestry of experiences for me from a science communication perspective (starting here…up until now). I ended up sharing a personal story of milestones and anecdotes from the past 10 years. Most significantly, though, I shared some observations about the evolving role that storytelling plays in building public trust in modern agriculture.

As Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind, states: “The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor.” We humans love stories. Stories are woven into the social fabric of our lives. Words matched with imaginative expression bring stories to life. A good story – when it’s told well – releases chemicals in the listener’s brain. These chemical reactions build trust between the storyteller and the listener.

As an industry, we have come to recognize this power that storytelling has. Stories are channels for sharing information, learning, and for building and sustaining relationships. We find common ground by sharing the human experience. Yes, farmers and scientists are stepping out from fields and labs to share their stories. But the art and science of storytelling is evolving. And storytelling today requires a whole new level of agility and ingenuity than it ever has before. It is one part engagement and two parts personal branding. It also requires an aptitude for self-reflection. Here are some tips:

1) Know your audience. That’s a given, right? Well, not exactly. Knowing your audience today means something entirely different than it did 10 years ago. It requires social networking savvy and a nuanced understanding of human behavior (your own included). Ideologies and perceptions are reinforced by our close personal networks (and those networks have expanded since the onset of the Internet). We humans depend upon our personal networks for social survival. If stories don’t reflect our personal and network identities, we are less likely to connect with them and the storytellers because – let’s face it – our social survival depends on it. The last thing that we want is to be voted off the island.

2) Be clever; be creative. We live in a ‘fast information nation.’ People want to be entertained first, informed second. Our ‘social living room space’ has expanded and new tools and platforms pop up everyday. Take advantage of them. Use your words wisely and economically. Paint pictures with your words. Don’t be afraid to use humour. Think outside your own bubble (community, tribe, sector, discipline, vocation…).

3) Stories not only have to be compelling, they must be useful. The Oxford English dictionary defines useful as: “Able to be used for a practical purpose or in several ways.” As I see it, stories need to be:

  • Accessible: Is it readily available in spaces where your audience can find it? Think: social media platforms. Be where people are.
  • Relatable: Can a listener understand the content or the plotline? Lose the jargon! How does your story matter to the listener? Example: Does your science or farm story resonate with a suburban mom? Anticipate how she might share that story with her friends and family members. Equip her with the best metaphors.
  • Transferable: How can someone use your story to enhance their own? Your story needs to tap into and cut across cultures and belief systems in this world of mass information and diminishing attention spans.

4) Avoid the pitfalls of drive-by storytelling. This is when we shape a compelling story, drop it into a conversation, and then quickly move on. Be present. Track your story. When appropriate, update and engage around that narrative to reflect current events or new social realities.

Today, people have a very narrow view of science and its role in modern agriculture. Our job as science communicators is to expand knowledge in meaningful ways. Stories can be a vehicle for that. They are a mirror for social organization and community-based values and reflections of personal identities. We must keep in mind, however, that while communicating the value of science is very important, how we carry it out in this network-driven world matters even more. We must seek avenues to communicate the good news about science and modern agriculture in ways that won’t alienate people from their personal networks – and their identities.

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This blog post a slightly re-imagined version of guest postI wrote for SAIFood.ca in May 2017. That original post is here.

Monitoring the ‘information diet’: learning from the Registered Dietitians

bullet-LeafIf you listen to only one podcast episode this year, let it be this one. My friend, Robyn Flipse – Registered Dietitian and Cultural Anthropologist – chats with Registered Dietitian and podcaster Melissa Joy Dobbins (on her program, Soundbites) about how we are influenced by food cultism.

A summary of Robyn’s ‘nuggets’ of ‘food’ wisdom…

  1. We are the only animals that use symbolism in our lives. We apply that symbolism in many ways (for example, think currency). We also apply symbolism to food. We give food certain status and meaning in our societies and cultures.
  2. Our human nature leaves us vulnerable to influence by “food gurus”; people that step in and play on our fears and anxieties that we naturally have as humans. We are susceptible to the dogmatic traps and ideologies that these gurus use and perpetuate. They use language with claims about food that can “detoxify” or “purify” us.
  3. This, combined with our need to “belong” to tribes and social groups along with the influence of social media has left us vulnerable to food cultism and influencers. We are often willfully blind to the fact that there are usually a profit-based motives driving these food-related ideologies.

The one statement that Robyn made that really stuck out for me was this one:

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What and how to eat: we humans need to be taught and shown.

I hadn’t really thought about it like that before. And it makes sense. It also reminded me of a blog post that I wrote a couple of years ago: Fast Information Nation: the social costs of our highly connected world. As is the case with food, we need to be taught and shown how to consume information:

Excerpt: “We have an information banquet at our finger tips.  It’s a feast for the eyes and the ears; a smorgasbord of colour, content and a constant (sometimes annoying) presence in our lives.  Information has become the new flavourful, colourful commodity that dominates our lives and it’s shared on a fast-moving and highly-connected supply chain…But we have only so much space in our grey matter and we are presented with a ‘bountiful diet’ of mass information every day.  Ensuring that we access and share high quality, accurate information is important. Not only for our personal (mental) health and the health of our families, but for the health and wellness of our communities as well.”

In short, not only do we need to monitor our information diet (“calories” in, “calories” out), we need help in understanding how best to consume information in a balanced way. Especially in this fast-paced, socially-media driven world that we live in. This requires some work – discernment and critical thinking. Some good guiding principles can be found through these sources:

 

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Ready, set, shame!

Under the Influence (CBC) has been a favorite program of mine for some time. Terry O’Reilly, the host, explores the evolution of marketing from the 20th century into the 21st century…it’s really fascinating stuff. I always enjoy O’Reilly’s honey-smooth vocal intonations as he creatively grounds his observations in real-world scenarios. In this podcast from 2013 called Shame: the secret tool of modern marketing, Terry “…peels back the layers of shame in our modern world.”

To understand how marketing works today, O-Reilly says “we first need to go back in time”. Unlike today, in the early to mid 1800s we didn’t really care a great deal about how we smelled or what color our teeth were. Through an effective advertising strategy of “social shaming”, companies have been able to position their products and gain market share for the past 150 years. This approach is characterized through messages like: “Control that body odor, people are talking about you!” or “Halitosis is making you a social pariah” or “if you have whiter teeth you will attract the right partner”.

What do bad breath, yellow teeth, and body odor have to do with this blog post? Nothing really. But this whole notion of “social shaming” certainly does. By explicitly promoting the benefits (i.e. whiter teeth) of a given product, companies are implicitly communicating negative social impacts by not using the product.

Setting the “shaming” scene

CR-ShockLast fall, I attended a local community event in rural Alberta where there were a number of young moms in the room, balancing cherubic babies on their hips.  I eavesdropped in on an exchange that went something like this:

Mom #1 says proudly: “Jacob just moved up from rice cereal to baby food.”

Mom #2: “Oh, what are you feeding him?”

Mom #1: “Oh, I picked up [Name Brand] baby food at [Store Name]. We are trying that for now. We bought a selection of different vegetables and fruits to see how he likes them.”

Mom #3: “Well, I certainly hope that it’s organic!”

Mom #1: “Um… I don’t know. Well, I don’t think so…I…”

Mom #2: “I only feed Kaelynn organic baby food. In fact, I special order it in from [Specialty Baby Food Company].”

Mom #3: “I’ve heard about that! I feed my baby natural baby food with no preservatives that I get from [Local High-Priced “Natural” Grocery Store].

Mom #1: “But isn’t that expensive?”

Mom #2: “Yes, it is more money than the supermarket-bought brands but my Kaelyn is worth it.”

Mom #3: “…After all, Mom #1, the safety and health of our babies is important.”

*awkward silence*

Mom #1 looks awkwardly at her feet and shifts healthy, cherubic Jacob to the other hip.

Mom #2 and Mom #3 mentally un-invite Mom #1 from the next play date.

[END SCENE]

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We humans are social animals

As Matthew Lieberman says, we are “wired to connect” (2013). Our nature is to elevate and preserve status we have within the social ‘herd’. To do so, we need to abide by the collective rules of that social network.  If necessary, humans will go to great lengths to protect a position. This is reflected in our “conforming” behaviors  (see Christakis and Fowler 2009). We pick up on social cues (behaviors) of others to know if and when we have “fallen out of favor” or crossed the boundaries of social norms. When it appears that we have broken away from “what is acceptable”, we risk being penalized by our network. Our social environment has changed a great deal over the years where platforms like Facebook and Twitter have grown into central components of our daily human-to-human interactions:

“…social media increases the ability of aggrieved individuals to rally a large group of people around their cause, or publicly expose and embarrass someone they define as a deviant…A virtual mob can be mobilized overnight to spread the word of someone’s alleged wrongdoing, flood his or her inbox with hate mail, and apply other kinds of pressure.”

– Jason Manning, Assistant Professor, West Virginia University –

Tapping into our base fears

Because we are pack animals, we rely on our personal networks for affirmation and survival. If socially ostracized, our visceral response is that our ‘survival’ is in jeopardy.  Advertisers are well-aware of these fears. It is not only companies that employ these kinds of tactics to persuade consumers to buy their products. The ‘social shaming’ strategy is effectively used by different actors in various parts of our social world to influence behavior and public opinion. Via social media, we can easily lob shame-bombs at anyone we disagree with while ducking real accountability for those actions (often shielded behind anonymous profiles).

And sadly, as the above story illustrates, we often use these same shaming tactics on our own friends, family, and community members.

Suggested things to read, see, and listen to:

 

Fast ‘Information’ Nation? The social costs of our highly connected world

We have an information banquet at our finger tips.  It’s a feast for the eyes and the ears; a smorgasbord of colour, content and a constant (sometimes annoying) presence in our lives.  Information has become the new flavourful, colourful commodity that dominates our lives and it’s shared on a fast-moving and highly-connected supply chain.

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Some statistical ‘appetizers’* for you:

  • Facebook has 1.4 billion monthly active users  and records almost 400,000 “likes” per minute
  • Twitter and Instagram each have almost 300 million monthly active users
  • Instagrammers share 70 million photos and videos everyday
  • There are an estimated 350,000 tweets posted per minute
  • YouTube reaches more U.S. adults (ages 18-34) than cable networks
  • Every second two new members join LinkedIn

Yes, the information drive-thru is open 24/7, folks! Anyone can post anything on the Internet, with virtually no accountability. Headlines, blog titles, and tweets can be highly provocative.  It is really difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff; determine who the experts and the non-experts are and discern between good and bad information.  The Internet has radically blurred the line between fact and myth.

“Orange” You Frustrated by This One?

While our new ‘meme’ culture  has cultivated a new generation of idea-generators, it has also sowed seeds for ‘online vandalism’. In February of this year, a photograph of sliced oranges with what appeared to be red veining and discoloration circulated on Facebook. According to the originator of the post, the oranges were imported from Libya and had been injected with the blood of an HIV positive person.

Grossly misleading ‘myths’, like this one, are the “virtual B and Es” (break and enters) that can lead to broader damage.  I volunteered with AIDS Saskatoon for years and worked with men, women and children and their families that were afflicted with or affected by this terrible disease. HIV/AIDS cannot be transmitted in the manner described in this bit of misleading information.  The virus cannot survive very long outside the human body. You cannot even get infected from consuming food handled by an HIV-infected person.  This ‘myth’ is an example how nefarious information can generate some serious social costs.  People that suffer with HIV/AIDS already deal with social stigmas. Myths like these only serve to perpetuate those stigmas.

The Snowball Effect

So, maybe you and I are not buying into the kind of information that the ‘online vandals’ propagate. Maybe we aren’t even sharing it.  But others do.  There are huge implications of this. When a story hits social media, the effect is much like a snowball rolling down a hill… it gains volume and momentum.

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Based on his studies of societies, cultures, and the cognitive capacity of the human brain, scholar Robin Dunbar determined that there was an optimal number of people that one person could effectively manage or carry on meaningful relationships with within his/her social circle (1992). That number – Dunbar’s Number – is “150” (check out this interview with Dunbar on one of my favorite podcasts Social Science Bites).

With the increased carrying capacity of social media platforms, however, other research suggests that Dunbar’s number is much higher now.  According to Barry Wellman (2012), a social network analyst with the University of Toronto, our effective reach as individuals is now in the neighbourhood of 600 people or more. Those additional links may not be as qualitatively strong as our ‘face-to-face’ connections but advances in communication technology do allow us to track people, activities and to share information in ways unlike ever before. While many stories can quite easily get swallowed up and die a quick death amidst the mass of information, others can become almost pathogenic.  ‘Shareability’ is a function of just how provocative, inflammatory or even ‘sticky’ that information is (check out the cockroach/cherry effect outlined here). The reality is that, as human beings, we are hard wired to believe the worst and buy into what the ‘online vandals’ share.

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‘Calories In, Calories Out’ or ‘Binge and Purge’?

So, how do we cut through this smorgasbord of mass information and decide what to include on our ‘plate’? It’s not easy, but there are some basic principles that we can apply. Robert Harris (2015) provides a great “CARS” check list (credibility, accuracy, reliability and support) for evaluating internet sources. I summarize Harris’ points below and add a few of my own for context and clarity:

  • “C” Credibility:
    • What are the author’s credentials? Is there contact information? What is the author’s position and affiliation? Is it an ‘anonymous’ author? (lack of transparency is often a bad sign)
    • Is there bad grammar or are there misspelled words?
    • If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Similarly, if it is all doom, gloom and bad news, it’s likely misrepresenting the facts, too.
    • Are there claims of “secret” or “unique” information?
  • “A” Accuracy:
    • Is the information up-to-date, factual, detailed, exact, and comprehensive? Are there dates?
    • Are there vague, sweeping or over-generalized statements? These can be misleading.
  • “R” Reliability:
    • Does the piece feel fair, objective and moderate?
    • Beware of buzzwords/phrases like “cure” or “irrefutable” or “scientists have proven”
    • Check spelling of “endorsing” institutions on the article. Often, originators of inflammatory pieces or memes will intentionally misspell names of institutions (for example “John Hopkins” vs  “Johns Hopkins” (the latter is correct)).
  • “S” Support:
    • Does the article cite credible sources? Continuous self-citation is not a good sign. The hallmark of a good resource is that it cites a variety of (reliable/credible) sources.
    • Is the site bookended with ads/items for sale? Are the authors identifying a “problem” and trying to provide you with the $20 solution? This is indicative of another agenda.

Monitoring Your Information Diet

We live in a first world where we (most of us) don’t have to worry about where our next meal is coming from.  We live in a world where status updates have become the new form of social currency. This is not all bad news, of course. We are exposed to more diverse groups of people, cultures and ethnicities, as a result. Our conversations and our understanding of ourselves and each other will undoubtedly grow and evolve with access to new information. We can even work more efficiently (when our Facebook profiles aren’t open, that is (*wink, wink*)).

But we have only so much space in our grey matter and we are presented with a ‘bountiful diet’ of mass information every day.  Ensuring that we access and share high quality, accurate information is important. Not only for our personal (mental) health and the health of our families, but for the health and wellness of our communities as well.

It’s up to us – as consumers – to monitor our information diets. We need to think critically about what is shared and what we share on the Internet.

 “The central work of life is interpretation.” – Proverb

[This blog post is a summarization of a presentation I was invited to give to a group of dietitians, food writers, media personalities, educators and chefs at Canola Connect Camp on May 1, 2015. The event was hosted by the Manitoba Canola Growers Association (May 1 and 2, 2015) and I was grateful for the opportunity to engage with such a diverse group of food-saavy individuals!]

*descriptive statistics sourced from JeffBullas.com

Other good ‘myth-busting’ sources and tip-sites:

 

Key references:

Dunbar, R.I.M. (1992). “Neocortex size as a constraint on group size in primates.” Journal of Human Evolution. Volume 22, Issue 6, June. Pps: 469-493.

Harris, Robert (2015). Evaluating Internet Research Sources.  Virtual Salt. (previous versions dated: 2013, 2010, 2007)

Konnikova, Maria (2014). The Limits of FriendshipThe New Yorker. October 7.

Wellman, Barry (2012). “Is Dunbar’s Number Up?” Commentary. The British Journal of Psychology. 103(2):174-6

Communicating the Science of Agriculture

In October of 2013, I had the distinct pleasure of sharing the podium with Dr. Kevin Folta and Ms. Michele Payn-Knoper as we tackled the very complex (yet fascinating) issue of ag science communication.

It was an unusually chilly day, the frost clung heavily to the evergreens and an eery fog hung over the South Saskatchewan River. But nothing but warmth and the prospect of good discussion greeted us when we arrived at Riverside Golf and Country Club for the day’s events.

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There were 40+ people in attendance: farmers, scientists, policy makers and academics. It was a great day and much of what was discussed is summarized in interviews with Kevin, Michele and me that are currently up on the Genome Prairie website.

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Kevin Folta presents to the crowd gathered at Riverside Golf and Country Club

Kevin and me.

Kevin and me.

Guess what? It turns out that the event in 2013 was an inaugural one.  The Communicating the Science of Agriculture 2014 workshop will be held this year on October 9, 2014 at the Willows Golf and Country Club in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.  Our guest is Dr. Steve Savage, plant pathologist, science communicator and author of the blog Applied Mythology.  Register before October 1st to ensure your spot in the workshop!

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“Keep looking up! I learn from the past, dream about the future and look up. There’s nothing like a beautiful sunset to end a healthy day.” – Rachel Boston

The full farm and food immersion experience at #CanolaConnect!

Canola Connect Camp "swag"

Canola Connect Camp “swag”

I was excited to participate last week in the third annual Canola Connect Camp, hosted by the Manitoba Canola Growers Association. It was a full farm and food immersion experience! Writers, dieticians, chefs, media personnel and other food saavy folks, hailing from Alberta, Ontario and Manitoba, were on board the Canola Connect bus as we made tracks around western Manitoba (the Parkland Region) visiting farms and food production operations. We even got to tour the inside of a (circa 1976) grain elevator in Russell, Manitoba!

Without going into too much detail, we Campers saw much, did much (and, subsequently, ate much) in those three tightly packed, event-filled days. There is no end to how each of us could report on or write about given our vastly different perspectives and our overall enthusiasm for the Camp. For my post-Camp blog entry, however, I am going to shed some light on on-farm strategies and practices.  This is an area of interest for me (for work-related reasons) but also because there is a great deal to know and learn about farming in Canada. So much has changed in agriculture in my lifetime alone. As a farmer, it must be hard to keep up with changes in the technology (learning, investing, etc). As a downstream consumer who may have little to no connection to the farm, it is even more difficult to understand the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ of food production especially when there is so much misinformation out there.

DAY ONE: On the very first day of Camp, the Dalgarno family invited us to their farm. In addition to enjoying tasty, catered meal in a neat-as-a-pin shop that would make any man (or woman, for that matter) swoon, we were able to question Andrew and his dad, Bruce, about their operations. Right off, we tackled the ‘elephant in the room’ -> GMOs (genetically modified organisms).

Bruce and Andrew talked a bit about the history of genetically engineered canola and its introduction to the market in the mid 1990s. Prior to that, Bruce said, things were much different. Remember the dust-bowls of the 1980s?

“Farmers would have to cultivate the soil to bury the straw to blacken the ground following the previous season’s cereal crop. After that, a granular, soil-applied herbicide was spread and the ground cultivated a second time to mix the herbicide into the soil. The following spring, before seeding canola, we would have to cultivate a third time to activate the herbicide. After the Canola had been seeded in May, we would then have to use a tank mix of 1 or 2 herbicides to control the remaining weeds during June.”  

These kind of activities took time and represented huge expenses for farmers – diesel fuel, cultivator shovels, wear and tear on equipment and labour. More importantly, the soil took a real beating. As Andrew says:

With repeated cultivation, the soil was more exposed to wind and water erosion because the straw was no longer able to protect the ground.”

So, how does genetically engineered Canola and its ‘supposed benefits’ fit into this? The introduction of these new varieties twenty years ago represented huge changes for on-farm management. Less herbicide applied less often meant that farmers were able to more easily adopt environmentally-friendly, soil-conservation practices like min or no till.

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Herbicides, which are a class of pesticide, often get ‘bad press’ but they are a necessary part of the food production process. Check out what Dr. Steve Savage, plant pathologist, has to say in his blog entry “Pesticides: probably less scary than you think”:

“…[W]ithout pesticides our farms would be far less efficient in terms of resource-use-efficiency (land, water, fuel, fertilizers, labor).  That is why both organic and conventional farmers often need to use pesticides.” – Steve Savage

(You can check out glyphosate’s toxicity level relative to other common household consumables here. It is less toxic than caffeine, baking soda, hydrogen peroxide and even Vitamin D!)

amount of product

DAY TWO: On day two of the Canola Connect Camp, we stopped for a ‘meal in the field’ hosted by Pat and Paul Orsak (‘shout out’ to the Miller family at Silver Creek Bison Ranch for providing the bison for the bison burgers! YUM!)

Paul, his son Owen, and a hired hand (and nephew) Jake were harvesting wheat that day.  Paul took some time from his busy harvesting schedule to talk about his operations. The Orsak family runs a tight rotation of wheat and canola. Why? It’s a business decision.  Farming is a business and in order to keep that business solvent, farmers have to make decisions based upon the marketplace, crop gePAUL ORSAK2netics and the climate.

“We respond to the market and grow what we think will provide the best return.  Some of the crops we used to grow have not provided sufficiently attractive pricing opportunities on a consistent basis to make it worthwhile.  For other crops, disease control became as issue.  Our climate has become wetter since the 1980’s and 90’s and as a result some crops do not do well in our location.”

Paul also pointed out that the genetics of both wheat and canola have improved relative to the other types of crops.  This tips production in their favour.

And how about those GMOs, Paul?

“…GMOs are just another method of plant breeding, something we and nature have been doing for centuries. Genetically engineered or modified crops are simply new and different varieties of existing crops. As knowledge of reproduction and genetics grew, it allowed plant breeders to more rapidly breed new varieties by crossing specific plants to achieve a desired end.  Genetic engineering is simply a more precisely executed extension of that knowledge. The goal is to improve crop genetics and achieve traits that are desirable.” 

[note: there is no genetically engineered wheat on the market]

Itorsak quote 2‘s not only the genetically engineered seeds that have revolutionized farming.  Farm equipment (size, GPS functionality, auto-tracking, etc) allow for greater efficiencies but most importantly – PRECISION – in the placement of seed, fertilizer and pesticides. This all greatly reduces farmers’ input costs and allows for greater sustainability in operations.

It was a fantastic few days connecting with fellow food and farm enthusiasts on the Canola Connect Camp tour! We not only visited the grain farms (above), we also visited a bison operation (this was a first for me), a cattle ranch and a bee farm!

So much to write about and so little time! ;o)

Thanks to the Manitoba Canola Growers Association and the team of Ellen, Jenn, Lori, Simone and Johanne for your roles in making this Camp possible!

Lori Dyck has compiled pictures and tweets into a Storify story of our Canola Connect Camp adventure here! More pictures have been posted by Jenn Dyck here!

Want to get to know that “Farm to Food” connection a bit better? Check out these resources:

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.

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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:

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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.

GMOs and Public Perceptions: Part 5 (of 5)

I had the opportunity to work with a journalism student from Sheridan College. She asked some really great questions about genetically modified organisms and I provided some answers.

Q.5 What are the benefits to GM foods? (see a related blog entry on this):

Most would argue that the benefits of GM food accrue further up the value chain (seed companies and  producers).  But we cannot under-estimate or under-value what these gains mean downstream for consumers.

Studies have been conducted that demonstrate (on average) that GM crops out-produce organics by as much as 30%.  Now, this varies depending on location and soil conditions (and other factors) of course.  But overall, there are productivity gains for genetically engineered crops. GE crop technology is the fastest adopted crop technology in the history of modern agriculture. As of 2012, 170 million hectares worldwide had been planted to biotechnology.  Fastest adopters of late? Third world countries.

Also, we are running out of land and we have a growing world population.  We cannot afford to use any more land base than we already do.  If GE crops can allow us to produce MORE on less land, then having biotech crops in our ag toolbox is important for that fact alone.

Source: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/cif-green/2010/apr/21/gm-crops-benefit-farmers

Source: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/cif-green/2010/apr/21/gm-crops-benefit-farmers

And here is something else that I find compelling. In an FAO study conducted in 2011, it was reported that 43 per cent of the ag labour force was women and most of the time spent in the fields by these women was in weeding. Ugh. New varieties of GE corn introduced to South Africa has cut down weeding time substantially.  This means that women have more time (options?) to pursue off-farm work, spend time with children, pursue educational opportunities??? Isn’t that a good thing?  Then there is GM cotton in India.  Most pesticides are applied by the farmer (no mechanical means).  Besides productivity gains, the introduction of GM cotton in the country has meant fewer passes of pesticides resulting in millions of dollars saved in the country’s health care system.  Here is an article that looks at the benefits of GM crops in India for women.

We are also contending with things like global warming, disease, pests, etc.  We need to develop crop varieties that are adaptable to new environments so that people have options for eating and for production.  Take, for example, the development of flax varieties for northern parts of Canada.  Flax is an important crop for rotation purposes in farm management (plus there are markets for this crop).  Crop rotation is an important part of integrated pest management strategies at the farm-level. Having access to a crop variety for on-farm management rotational practices is important for productivity and for the environment.

Also, the introduction of herbicide tolerant crops has allowed farmers to adopt min or no til practices which is better for the environment (and it helps lower costs for the farmer as well – less time in the field and less money spent on weed control). These herbicide tolerant crops require a lot less product – and fewer passes – to control weeds.

There are many different kinds of genetically engineered crop varieties out there in the product pipeline that have consumer benefits.  For example, there is a low linoleate soy bean that has been modified for no transfats (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/16/business/in-a-bean-a-boon-to-biotech.html?_r=1&).

In the end, the benefits of GM crop adoption and improvements are in quality of life[1], both from a farmer’s perspective and from a consumer’s perspective.  Thus, it is important that we continue to judiciously regulate these crop varieties and ensure that they in the toolbox of options for farmers and as value-add ingredients for our food (consumers).

GMOs and Public Perceptions: Part 4 (of 5)

I had the opportunity to work with a journalism student from Sheridan College. She asked some really great questions about genetically modified organisms and I provided some answers. Q.4 Should labeling GM foods be mandatory in Canada? There is a private member bill that has been introduced to label GMOs in Canada plus 24+ legislative (municipal and state level) initiatives currently on ‘the books’ in the US.  This whole issue of labeling is not going away anytime soon.  The problem is that the issue is often oversimplified in the media.  It’s not as simple as slapping a label on a can and calling it a day. image4 Mandatory labeling invokes traceability within the food system.  And no matter what the headlines say, that means costs.  When people think GMOs and labeling, they most often think big seed companies[1] (like Monsanto) and big retailers (like Walmart). The ag and food production value chain is long and complex, comprised of many different actors including producers/farmers, elevator managers, grain distributors, seed companies, food processors, transporters, wholesalers, retailers, restaurants, etc. If governments were to enact mandatory labeling [2], costs would be incurred throughout that value chain (all actors). And those costs would be passed onto the consumer. In addition to increased food costs, mandatory labeling of GMOs would have other effects. According to the results of a recent study[3] conducted by MIT professor Juaniuan Zhang, consumers assumes that the government knows more than they do about the safety of the food supply.  So, if the government requires labels on food, consumers will suspect that there is something wrong with it.  Thus, a GMO label runs the real risk of looking like a warning label. On a related note, our current food labeling system (regulated by the federal government) operates on some fundamental tenets.  First off, labels on food products are reserved for foodstuffs that carry a documented health risk (eg. allergen) or in cases where products represent a substantive change in nutritional composition.  Scientific evidence affirms that GMO foods are indistinguishable from foods produced through traditional methods (see studies mentioned above).  Labeling them for consumers (mandatory) would be misleading.  Labels, by law, cannot be misleading.  The other argument here is that if people wish to avoid GMOs, they can.  There are third party certified labels for “non GMO” (The Non GMO Project) and you can always choose to buy “certified organic” (US and Canada).  So, a GMO label seems a bit redundant. image4a Now, voluntary labeling on the part of the food industry is a whole other issue.  Some argue that industry should have been more proactive long ago and incorporated what is referred to as “positive” labeling strategies for products with GMO ingredients.  It may have mitigated some of the controversy that has gone on for the past 20 years.  This voluntary labeling thing is not out of the realm of possibilities for now either.  But the devil will be in the details. How and what to label is the real question.  It will be interesting to see how all this plays out. Here’s two sides to the issue that are very illustrative and from people that I view as evidence-based and ‘reasoned’: Check out Mark Lynas’ take on labels and his argument for ‘transparency’: http://www.marklynas.org/2013/10/why-we-need-to-label-gmos/ Also, I like this post by my colleague Chris MacDonald on “Right to Know What I am Eating” on his blog “Food Ethics”: http://food-ethics.com/2010/09/28/the-right-to-know-what-im-eating/


[1] There are often statements in the media “If you are so proud of your products, Monsanto, why don’t you label them?” This shows that people really don’t have an understanding the ag and food value chain.  These companies (like Bayer, BASF< Dow, Monsanto, etc) market to farmers. Period. And those seeds (if they are genetically engineered) are VERY WELL labeled as such. Now, the reason that these big companies get involved in funding “say no to GMO labels” is because they are supporting and advocating for the interests of downstream industry actors (like food companies).  They are also taking into consideration what impacts labeling would have at the farm, elevator, transport levels too.  Segregation costs (and other administrative and management costs) are big costs.
[2] At the government level, these costs would be incurred by the public purse, of course.
[3] The Zhang study: http://jjzhang.scripts.mit.edu/docs/Zhang_2014_GMO.pdf – – – – GMOs and Public Perceptions: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 5.

GMOs and Public Perceptions: Part 1 (of 5)

I had the opportunity to work with a journalism student from Sheridan College. She asked some really great questions about genetically modified organisms and I provided some answers.

Q.1 Why are people worried about GM foods? Are these concerns overhyped?

image1

Safety seems to be the most quoted reason for people’s concerns over GMOs. But, these concerns (and the arguments) are often unscientific and unsubstantiated. So, yes, most of these concerns are overhyped and controversy is created where often none exists.

We live in a (first world) where we have the luxury (most of us, anyway) of not worrying where our next meal comes from. So, we seem to have more time to dwell on things and our relationship to food has evolved from one that was (at one time) wholly ‘functional’ to one that is more ‘aesthetic.’

We are also generationally and geographically removed from the farm.  Only 2% of North America’s population live and work on farms.  That’s a huge (cognitive) divide.  And that’s a huge problem because that 2% is responsible for the food security of the other 98% plus others in the world.  Almost a billion people every day fight to just get 300 calories a day.  We are not only dealing with a urban-rural divide, we are dealing with a north-south divide where we are completely dissociated from what’s happening in less developed parts of the world.

Here’s the deal on GM foods and genetically engineered crops.  The scientific consensus on genetically engineered crops and foodstuffs is overwhelming.  They are as safe or safer than any other food stuffs on the market.  Many, many studies attest to this (see this and this). They have been in our food system for almost twenty years and there are REPUTABLE and INDEPENDENT organizations from all over the world that have made statements that attest to the safety of GMOs and genetically engineered crops. The problem is is that one-off studies often come up that use anecdotes or ascribe causal links between GMOs and disease where there is only correlation, at best.  These studies gain a great deal of traction in the media because they are “scary”… and those kind of headlines sell (check out an editorial piece I wrote in the Western Producer on this). And, make no mistake, they have political agendas driving them. Those that publish these kinds of studies do so to manipulate the media and the public.  I find that unconscionable.

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GMOs and Public Perceptions: Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5.