Cooking up pancakes and talking corn on “In the Kitch” ;o)

Recently, I had the opportunity to fly to Toronto and film a short segment on the cooking show “In the Kitch” with Chef Roger Mooking. Roger is a self professed “third generation food freak”, an author, official Chef for the Marilyn Denis Show, AND a recording artist! Roger has a very diverse set of skills, talents and interests!

Do you know what else is diverse? Corn! And guess what Roger and I were cooking on the show? Corn pancakes!  With my help, Roger whipped up some yummy buttermilk corn pancakes with whipped maple butter and and I “talked corn” – corn diversity, production, value, and the technologies used to develop this very important crop. Click here to link to Better Living TV and “In the Kitch” to see this episode.

croplife canada

I had such a great time! Thanks to Roger, the crew at Better Living TV, and CropLife Canada for the great experience! Check it out! Share it! Here’s the recipe! It will be aired soon on the Food Network (Sat. July 6th @ 8:30am (EST)/Sun. Aug 25th @ 8:30am).

cooking with corn

“10 ‘reasoned’ responses” to “10 reasons we don’t need #GMOs”

You may have run across this article “10 Reasons We Don’t Need GM Foods” on the FoodConsumer website.  It’s been making its rounds on social media (Facebook and Twitter). I would like to address some of the inaccuracies in this article – point by point:

1. GM foods won’t solve the food crisis

Well, surprisingly enough, I agree with this one.  Or at least with the statement: GM foods ALONE won’t solve the food crisis. GM foods and genetically engineered (GE) crops aren’t a silver bullet in resolving problems with food security.  I refer to Mark Lynas (former Greenpeace activist and author) who said in a recent talk he gave at Cornell University:

“[GE/GM] cannot build better roads or chase away corrupt officials. But surely seeds which deliver higher levels of nutrition, which protect the resulting plant against pests without the need for expensive chemical inputs, and which have greater yield resilience in drought years are least worth a try?” Mark Lynas (April 2013)

Hey, I’d say so.  It is important to note that the introduction of GE crops (in particular) has enabled wider adoption of “no-till” farming (see a farmer’s perspective on this).  No-till is a system which conserves soil moisture, prevents erosion, dramatically reduces nutrient and pesticide movement to streams and rivers, and reduces fuel use.  All good, in my opinion.

Did you know that if we still farmed using the inputs and techniques that we did in the 1950s, we would need millions (maybe even billions) more hectares available to produce what we produce today? Advances in plant breeding techniques, introduction of no-till practices, integrated pest management and adoption of genetically engineered crop varieties account for this rise in production.  This translates into higher productivity on less land.  We all win.   

2. GM crops do not increase yield potential

Seriously?! Hmmm.  Well, research suggests differently. The results of meta-analysis (that means a study that analyzed the results from MANY MANY other studies) published in a peer reviewed science journal in 2012 found that organic yields of individual crops were on average 25% percent lower than that of conventional yields.   Productivity in GM crops are purported to be anywhere from 7 – 20% higher than conventional varieties.  And, of course, context matters.  Different soil conditions in different parts of the world may be more or less conducive to a variety of production methods. Again, GE technology and GM crops are not a silver bullet by any means. But genetically engineered crops are an important technology in the food production toolbox. So, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater, OK?

3. GM crops increase pesticide use

If that’s the case, then how do you explain this interesting fact? Cotton farmers in India spray heavily to control for pests that damage production. Did you know that the application of pesticides to cotton in India is done by hand? With farmers walking through their small cotton fields using backpack sprayers? The adoption of GM cotton in India has reduced the number of pesticide applications per season by 50%. It is estimated that more than 2 million fewer cases of pesticide poisoning are occurring on an annual basis which saves the Indian government US$14 million (Smyth 2013, Herring 2009).

Want a first world perspective on the whole GM and pesticide use issue? Check out Applied Mythology‘s “The Muddled Debate on Pesticides and GM Crops.” Pesticide use is lower. Combine that with other economic and environmental benefits (refer to #1 and #2)… it’s a good thing.

4. There are better ways to feed the world

Let’s re-phrase this so that it’s a bit more accurate: “There are “many” ways to feed the world”

Absolutely.  A million of them.  Food security is a complex problem that requires a multi-faceted approach in resolving the political and economic issues that come with feeding a growing world population.  Again, GE and GM crops are very important technologies in the food production toolbox…

I mentioned the “baby” and the “bathwater” already, didn’t I?

5. Other farm technologies are more successful

Farming is complex. I don’t know ANY farmer who is not up against making a hundred decisions in a given day.  Just ask a producer (grain, livestock, organic, conventional): Ryan Goodman, Brian Scott, Emily Zweber, Carrie Mess… Again, this is not an all or nothing scenario. Many factors go into the strategic management at the farm level.  And its never as simple as saying that GMO is ‘bad’ and organic is ‘good’ or vice versa. It’s more than just picking a production method.

6. GM foods have not been shown to be safe to eat

I hear this a lot and I have to remind everyone that nothing is 100% safe. Nothing. NO food. You can test organic, conventional and GM for the next 500 years and there will never ever be “absolute proof” that a food produced a certain way is 100% safe. That’s not how things roll here in the ‘real world’. The food value chain is long and involves lots of actors.  Lots can happen. Take for example the Maple Leaf Foods listeria crisis in 2008 (23 confirmed deaths). Then there was the XL Foods e.coli incident in 2012 where 18+ people were taken ill when they ingested tainted meat. And the anti-GM folks get a bit hot under the collar when I mention this one:  almost 4000 people were affected and 53 died from a rare strain of e.coli in sprouts that were produced on an organic farm in Germany in 2011.

There have been some food-related tragedies.  But there is no documented evidence of harm to human health or deaths from consumption of GM foods since they were introduced to the market two decades ago. None. Here are TWO studies (US and EU – and there are more) that attest to the safety of GM foods (NRC 2004, EC 2010, more here (scroll down)). GE crops or GMOs have been the most heavily tested food products in the history of our regulatory system.

7. People don’t want GM foods – so they’re hidden in animal feed

I wonder who thought this little gem up.  GM foods aren’t “hidden.” And they are certainly not “hidden” in animal feed.  Livestock producers use corn and soybean as a base for animal feed, all over the world (including the the European Union where GE soybeans are exported from the US and Brazil for animal consumption). As of 2012, there has been a 100-fold increase in the planting of biotech crops since 1996.  In the US alone, between 67% and 94% of all acreage attributed to corn, soybean, cotton and canola are genetically engineered. Nothing is “hidden” here… genetically engineered crops are ‘front and centre’ in world agriculture production.  Biotechnology is the fastest adopted crop technology in the history of modern agriculture (James 2012).

8. GM crops are a long-term economic disaster for farmers

Wow. That sounds scary.  Yes, GM seed prices are higher than that of conventional seeds.  But farmers that utilize the technology do so because they get higher yields and extract higher margins.  Just ask Brian Scott: “I can get a premium price for the soybeans we grow to be used as seed by other farmers next year.” If you ask Brian, he is neither “dependent” on the technology nor is he a “slave to ‘big ag'”.   Rather he (and other producers like him) are making economic decisions at the farm level based on input costs and projected market outcomes.  And don’t kid yourself. These folks don’t make these decisions at the expense of the land.  They *care* about the environment (environmental benefits: see #1).  They are not about to willfully destroy land that has been farmed by them and their ancestors – and potentially their children and children’s children – for generations.

9. GM and non-GM cannot co-exist

There’s that word again – – – “contamination”.  It’s an ugly word with ugly connotations.  Did you know that we already operate in a segregated agriculture and food system?  If you want, you can choose to eat organic.  It’s all labeled in your grocery store.  Organics standards were adopted by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency in 2009 in Canada.  These standards are enforced by organic inspectors through accredited certification bodies all over the country. Contamination? Organic farm and crop certification is based on the production methods used, NOT on the purity of the end product. So, nothing would happen to an organic grower or his produce if (in the highly unlikely event that) trace amounts of some other variety were found (BTW – there is no testing in organic crops). Organic growers will never lose their organic certification (unless, of course, they are shown to be intentionally growing ‘non-organic’ produce or crops and sending them to market as ‘organic’).

10. We can’t trust GM companies

Don’t believe everything you read. 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. 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 (13 years and $140 million US)? And just to clarify, the regulatory 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.

The whole “David and Goliath” thing (small defenseless farmer vs big ag company) gets wayyyy overblown in the anti-GM rhetoric.  Like I said before, don’t believe everything you read.  Like ’em or not, ‘big ag’ companies are the only ones that can take these technologies to the marketplace where society can extract value from them.  Who else? Universities and public research institutes? I don’t think so.  At least, that’s not where I want *my* tax dollar going. These multinational ag businesses invest the dollars in the research and product development and they have a right to protect that investment for a limited period of time. It’s how our patent system works – for EVERYONE.

Want to know more about patents and plants? Check here.

– – – –

We live in a privileged world; one where food is plentiful and varied and one that affords us this seemingly ‘aesthetic’ relationship with what and how we consume. We have turned our backs on the functionality of food and entered into this realm of ‘food snobbery’ where the ‘food police or elites‘ (as Jayson Lusk refers to them) seem to rule the world.

On a final note: For every 10 reasons cited suggesting that we don’t need GMOs, I can list 100 or more of why we *do* need genetically engineered crops and GM food.

rant/off

Scientific evidence and policy making

Evidence based information to inform policy

In November of 2012, I organized a PANEL at the Canadian Science Policy Conference in Calgary.  We invited experts from Canada, the US and the UK (all with experience navigating the murky waters between science and government) to participate on the panel to discuss the issue:

If non-science factors drive some of the issues, how, if and when is scientific knowledge and expertise accessed to inform evidence-based policy making?

Well, first off, it appears that Canada may be coming up short. This country is a bubbling kettle of political hot water right now. Some argue that the gap between science and government is widening.  There are allegations that the federal government is ‘muzzling its science’. A ‘Death of Evidence’ movement even arose out of the AAAS meeting in Vancouver in 2012.

death of evidence

Source: www.deathofevidence.ca/

The relationship between science and government in Canada

It is important to emphasize that Canada has used some models to navigate the space between science and government.  And these models have worked well to varying degrees. Many were modeled after initiatives in the UK.  The problem is that they have long been abandoned.  Canada currently has something called the Science Technology Innovation Council (STIC) which reports to the Junior Minister of Science.  But, apparently, the advice and information that the organization offers up is ‘secret.’

But ‘secret’ just doesn’t ‘cut it’. The Jenkins Report (Innovation Canada: A Call to Action, 2011) states that while Canada excels in research it lags behind much of the rest of the developed world in commercializing innovation. One of the contributing factors that the Report alludes to is the lack of a broad, transparent connection between science and government.

innovation deficit

So, what came out of the CSPC 2012 panel discussion?

1) There are gaps:

  • Decision makers need the best, most reliable and timely scientific advice and information (evidence) in order to formulate sound policy
  • Sources of evidence need to be unbiased and independent
  • And scientific literacy in the public must be addressed in some way (to mitigate some of the myths and misinformation that circulates)

2) Good governance required:

  • There appears to be an inherent lack of understanding of cultural gaps between scientific and political spheres – that’s a problem.
  • This leads to questions around the Who? What? How? When? of mobilizing the evidence. It is important to clarify relationships and roles in terms of information exchange.
  • What models should we use? Frameworks?

Which leads one to ask…

Mobilizing Evidence: what has been done to date?

From the Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA (1975) to present day, there have been a number of models for knowledge/expertise that have been initiated. The extension model is an old but successful model with a reported good return on investment with these kinds of initiatives working well in agricultural based colleges.  They quite often effectively connect researchers and plant breeders to producers. But the problem today is that we are not only dealing with ‘farmer knowledge needs’ here – – – the stakeholder circle has broadened a great deal and this makes things much more complex.

There have been (and are) a number of national and international efforts to summarize, assess and communicate evidence: International Food Safety Network (iFSN), Royal Society of Canada, Canadian Biotechnology Advisory Committee (CBAC), Nuffield Council on Bioethics, US National Research Council, Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, Biosafety Clearing House (BCH) – Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety.  Some initiatives are great at compiling knowledge but not as great at interpreting that knowledge, let alone ensuring that the information gets where it needs to go. Others – like those governed by FAO, WHO and the OECD – although good, can be very slowwwww and ponderous.

There are great examples of formal science-government programs currently in place; ones that are designed to actually push the evidence along to where it needs to be.  Programs in the US such as the AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowships and the Jefferson Science Fellowships appear to be working quite well.  In the UK the government has positions called Chief Scientific Advisors that work to provide evidence to ministers that helps them make reasonable decisions on the basis of real evidence.

All of these are good examples where, at worst, knowledge is gathered and synthesized and where, at best, ‘evidence’ is mobilized into realms where key social and economic decisions are made.  

What models can and should we adapt and use in Canada? Can we do more? Can we do better? – – – – Related posts: Digging into the ‘Death of Evidence’

War on seeds or war on weeds? The answer lies in ‘quality of life’

Have you ever weeded a garden? I have. Many times. I recall as a child helping my grandmother weed her garden. Sometimes she used it as a form of punishment (yes, I had my moments). The garden wasn’t large but the task was onerous. Especially for a leggy, curious and impatient girl who’d rather be climbing trees, squashing pennies on the railway tracks or playing in the creek.

mom48

Grandma and me (Mother’s Day 1971)

Whether you live in the city or the country, weeding is one of those little tasks that becomes part of the summer routine. If you want your backyard garden to thrive, you need to get rid of the competitive, unwanted plant material before it sucks the life out of a good crop of lettuce or beets.

But these are first world problems.  Let’s move a bit further south. In an FAO study conducted in 2011, it was reported that 43 per cent of the agricultural labour force in developing countries or emerging economies was comprised of women. Although time put toward ag-related activities by women varies by crop, production cycle, age, region and ethnic group – most activities appear to revolve around the task of weeding. In a recent AWB-hosted blog, Stuart Smyth (researcher with the College of Agriculture and Bioresources at the University of Saskatchewan) stated that conventional maize requires in excess of 250 hours of hand weeding per hectare

Wow.

Here’s the good news. Smallholder maize farmers in South Africa that adopted GM maize reduced their manual weeding (and other labour activities) by as much as 50%! (see Smyth 2013)  Saving on field labour enables these hard-working women to spend more time on other activities (caring for their children, securing off-farm jobs to increase family income, maybe pursue educational opportunities, etc).  These (direct and indirect) benefits of GM technologies are often overlooked, especially by those of us in the first world.  

quality of life

While women in developing countries are tackling weeds and taking care of their families, first world activists are declaring war on seeds. In June 2003, experimental research materials at the John Innes Centre in Norfolk UK were uprooted and destroyed by activists. More recently, in July 2011, Greenpeace protesters scaled a fence of the CSIRO experimental station at Canberra and destroyed approximately a half a hectare crop of genetically modified wheat.

steve savage anti gm

As Professor Wayne Parrot says, these activists need to live for one day as impoverished peasants so they can experience first-hand what impact their actions are having on the lives of these people; what they are denying them in terms of technology.

In my opinion, it is so much easier (and cowardly) to pull full plants out of publicly-funded field trials than it is to hand-weed a hectare of corn. Perhaps a little weeding is in order?

I think that my grandmother would agree. :O)

 

– – – – –

More information on Solving Africa’s Weeding Problem

Here is a great post by Andrew Kniss on weed control in ‘first world’ agriculture: “Social Benefits of Biotech Crops”  Excerpt: “Before you rail against the technology, or denounce the evil corporations for creating them. Before you argue on twitter or Facebook about how good or bad the technology is for society. Before you write your next post for the New York Times or Grist. Ask a farmer who uses the technology. And then think about what they say.

Live TV experience provides fertile ground for learning to talk #GMOs

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.

big bad GMOS

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 marketFor 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 healthNone. Mountains of scientific evidence attest to the safety of GE crops and food (eg National Research Council 2004; European Commission 2010).

causal link ge and health

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.

missed the mark

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)

– – – –

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

– – – –

References:

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.

Fifty Shades of Hype: myths, the media and misperceptions #ag #science #food

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to give a talk to a group representing the agricultural industry in Alberta. The presentation – Fifty Shades of Hype: myths, the media and misconceptions around the science of agriculture and food – generated lots of good discussion. (Thanks for the hospitality, folks!)

Excerpt:

“In Canada, where only 2% of the population lives on farms, we struggle with a rural / urban divide … In some cases we romanticize agriculture and food production.  In some cases we demonize it…our pull to nostalgia can be so strong that we sometimes fall into the realm of magical thinking.  Does this leave us open to buying into constructed myths around science and agricultural production?

Myths and mythmaking, as an oral tradition, have always been an important part of society. Myths can illustrate simple moral lessons; they provide context and explanation under conditions of perceived or real uncertainty. They provide pathways for connecting us to that nostalgic past we so desperately want to cling to.  They are a gateway to a more promising future.  Myths possess authority by appealing to the values and beliefs of society through symbolic representations. Words and images, combined, help to position and augment myths in society.

But myths can be misleading. And when fabrications are shrouded as reality, they can really undermine important social goals – – – like health, food security and innovation. When that happens, good science is undermined and farming is put in a very bad light.  All this can lead to poor public policy, over-regulation of markets and bottlenecks in innovation.  And this is bad for everyone.

We need to separate fact from belief…we need to separate the rhetoric from the realities.  The agriculture and food production system is just that – a system.  It is complex.  It is way more complex than simply saying that GMO is bad and organic is good or vice versa. At the farm level, it is more than just picking a production method.  And biotechnology is just one tool in the box. Ag and food production is a matter of combining integrated pest management systems, crop rotations and min or no till practice to maximize yields and to reduce impacts on the environment.

The ‘bigger picture’ of what science and ag/food production offers for food security and the environment can get lost in the mythological rhetoric.”

title slideCropLife TalkFeb 2013

Faith on the plate: …hype around science of ag and food

“Faith on the plate: a skeptic’s guide to the hype around the science of agriculture and food

A presentation by Dr. Cami Ryan / hosted by the Calgary Centre for Inquiry.

ABSTRACT: What does “organic” mean? Are GM foods “dangerous”? What are the facts of agriculture and food production? In this talk, we will explore a number of issues around the science (and politics) of agriculture and food: food production systems, markets, regulations, and the debates around labeling. We will also look at how science and evidence are portrayed in the media and how they are perceived in the public sphere. Pushing past all the rhetoric, this talk discusses how we can channel our inner “scientist” and think more critically about how food makes it to our plate.

Join us at the University of Calgary; MacEwan Hall; Escala Room on Saturday, January 26th at 3:30 in the afternoon.

TICKET PRICES
General Public: $10
Students: $5
Friends of the Centre: FREE

poster2

Poster pdf: Faith on the Plate-c

EuropaBio’s factsheet on global adoption of GE Crops

Who grows GE crops and why?  Check out this factsheet published by EuropaBio! Click on the image below!

  • 17 million farmers cultivate GM crops on about 10% of the world’s fields
  • many farmers decide to invest in GM seeds mainly to reduce their inputs
  • 4/5 of global cotton and 3/4 of soybean harvest are GM

EuropaBio factsheet

 

 

Digging deep into the ‘death of evidence’ in Canada

So, I am pretty excited.  In July of this year, a colleague and I crafted a panel proposal for the forthcoming Canadian Science Policy Conference to be held in Calgary in November.  The title of our proposal? How Governments Access Innovative Science in the Knowledge Economy. It was accepted!

There appears to be a growing gap between science and government in Canada. This has been touted as the ‘death of evidence’ in the media.  We have seen recent cuts to federal science programs and in changes to legislation in Bill C-38. The topic of government’s ‘muzzling’ of scientists was also hotly debated at the AAAS meeting in Vancouver earlier this year.

Photo from: http://www.deathofevidence.ca/

This topic is an important one in Canada, and globally I would argue.  Accurate, objective and independent science-based information is required to inform debate that precedes formation of government policy. In the context of agriculture, you might recall Bill C-474 (which failed in 2011), a Bill which sought to introduce non-science factors into the approval of new seed varieties. Examples like this raise the question of how, exactly, is objective science accessed by government to inform debates in what essentially are science-based questions?

Here are some possibilities from a Canadian perspective. The Prime Ministers’ Office may have access to in-house resources that script scientifically valid, analytical statements regarding a given topic or issue. But, alternatively, the process may end up being driven politically where Members of Parliament survey constituents that reach a ‘non-scientific’ consensus.  How (and if) policymakers and government leaders get scientific information is a important part of the policy development process.  The role of science in the process has substantial impacts for society as a whole. (See structure of Canadian Federal Government here).

Our panel, How Governments Access Innovative Science in the Knowledge Economy, which will include science and policy experts from North America and the UK will focus on how governments in Canada and other jurisdictions use science to build or shape policy.  Panel experts will present, debate and discuss the various factors affecting policy development and decision-making pertaining to the role of science.  The objective is to contrast and compare Canada with other jurisdictions such as the UK and the US.

If you have any thoughts on this; things that you would like to see discussed or ideas brought up with our panel of experts, please post them here.  And stay tuned for follow up post after November 7th!

The roles of ‘rationality’, ‘toxicity’ and ‘partisanship’ in interpreting scientific information

The article Why we are poles apart on climate change by Yale U law and psychology professor Dan Kahan came across my ‘desktop’ yesterday.  Climate change is a topic that is hotly debated in the mainstream media and in social media as well.  There are climate change proponents and then there are climate change ‘denialists’.  Personally, I resist resting a foot in any camp as I don’t really know enough about the whole issue of climate change.  But I do know that Kahan’s points are certainly relevant when you consider them in the context of the genetically modified food debate.

There are ardent supporters of the technology at one end of the continuum and very passionate opponents on the opposite side.  But why are we so deeply divided on the topic of GMOs (genetically modified organisms)? Kahan poses this (à la climate change debate). He suggests that it’s not that people are irrational. Rather, it may be that their reasoning powers have become disabled by a polluted science-communication environment”“…[C]itizens are …are, in fact, too rational — at filtering OUT [the] information that would drive a wedge between themselves and their peers.”

Hmmm. Now, what does he mean by ‘polluted’ and what does he mean by ‘too rational’? Well, Kahan’s following remark provide insights into that:

“People acquire their scientific knowledge by consulting others who share their values and whom they therefore trust and understand. Usually, this strategy works just fine. We live in a science-communication environment richly stocked…The trouble starts when this communication environment fills up with toxic partisan meanings — ones that effectively announce that ‘if you are one of us, believe this; otherwise, we’ll know you are one of them’. In that situation, ordinary individuals’ lives will go better if their perceptions of societal risk conform with those of their group.”

So, we are largely influenced by our closely-tied networks, our communities and our families. Makes sense.  I am contemplating Kahan’s ideas further in the context of how (dare I say if?) governments acquire / interpret science based information in order to inform policy-making decisions.  What gaps out there need to be addressed? What can be done?

I would welcome your comments. Kahan’s article is attached. It’s a one-pager and a quick and relatively easy read.

Why we are poles apart on climate change? Kahan, Nature, 2012

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Happy to say that this blog has been picked up and posted by Biofortified at this link and by David Tribe on his blog GMO Pundit a.k.a. David Tribe at this link.  Thanks for the support everyone!