The Closer You Get… the fear and disgust response

As humans, we all experience a range of emotions: Anger, joy, sadness, surprise, fear and disgust. Fear and disgust are dominant emotional drivers. And you can thank your ancestors for that. Research suggests that we have evolved an “ingrained cognitive response” to things that we perceive as threatening (like spiders and snakes) so that we may survive as a human species.

A personal anecdote

I was involved in a serious car accident in 1986. It was what is referred to as a ‘miss and run’. There were devastating losses (I won’t get into the tragic details). It’s been almost thirty years [update: 32 years ago as of 2018] and while some things were quickly lost in the haze of shock or eventually blurred by time, certain images still lucidly dance across my mind.

Like The Closer You Get…it’s the title track from Alabama’s 7th studio album of the same name. It was playing on cassette in the truck stereo.  In the immediate aftermath of the crash, those beloved classic harmonies were like nails on a chalkboard to me. “Can you please turn the music off?” I asked. An attending RCMP officer obliged, reaching past me through the passenger window to switch off the stereo.

The fear that we felt before and after impact was palpable. Actually, fear became a regular, unwelcome guest in my life. It took several months (dare I say, years) before I could travel down that stretch of highway without experiencing anxiety.  Similarly, it was a long time before I could listen to that Alabama song without my stomach turning inside out.  For me, Highway #7 and that ill-fated song had become synonymous with pain, loss and suffering.

The twin responses of fear and disgust are often intertwined

Feardrivers fall along a continuum. There are immediate and tangible fears; ones that come with real risks. For example, you are caught in a natural disaster like an earthquake or in a flood, or you are at risk of drowning because you overturned your canoe and you don’t have a lifejacket on, or you are skidding on black ice into oncoming traffic on a very busy highway. There are other fears, though, that we experience; those are often perceived as less-than-rational. Things like the fear of needles, of spiders and snakes (see above), of heights or even the fears of leaving your own home. Some fears can be socially debilitating.

Disgustis slightly different but still related. It is the very human response to something we may view as unpleasant or vile in our environment. The ‘contamination-avoidance’ mechanism that kicks in to help us make decisions about something. I had a good friend that loved the name Paris but, in disgust, refused to name her baby daughter that because of what she viewed as Paris Hilton’s highly public, immoral foibles. She couldn’t separate the name Paris from the actions of the celebrity persona.  That’s anecdotal, but the human response phenomenon has been studied by scholars too.  For example, psychologist Paul Rozin conducted a study that included 50 respondents where he discovered, among other things, that people will outwardly and immediately reject delicious, tasty brownies if they are presented in the shape of something unpalatable, like dog feces (imagine that).

Cami's Quadrants of Fear and Disgust

Cami’s Quadrants of Fear and Disgust

Fear and disgust are not only experientially-based, they can be triggered and spread via the power of the Internet and social media.  For example, James McWilliams outlines how the rhetoric of disgust can undermine our  food choices.  In a recent interview by Roberto Ferdman in the Washington Post, Alan Levinovitz, James Madison University Prof and author of The Gluten Lie, is quoted as saying: “…[S]preading fear, before we actually know the truth, endangers society…” We have to take care to tread carefully through those provocative headlines, stories and blogs.

Our emotional responses shape our opinions and beliefs.  Our opinions and beliefs are reinforced through our personal networks  and once stuff gets stuck in our psyche, it’s pretty hard to displace it. Paul Rozin et al (1986) refer to the laws of contagion and similarity, where 1) contagion is qualified as “once in contact, always in contact”), and; 2) similarity holds that “the image equals the object”.  There’s an enduring ‘stickiness’ to images and ideas that are synonymous with our emotional responses. That’s why the word Frankenfood (and the associated images) has been so pervasive in how we view GM foods. And why people object more to GM food than to GMOs developed for other applications (such as insulin in the treatment of diabetes) (Blancke et al 2015).

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The closer you get…

There are physical and moral dimensions of disgust. On that fateful day in 1986 (and many days after), I experienced both. That Alabama song elicited a strong physical response in me – a stomach-churning, heart-palpating reaction. It was a benign, harmless song but one that I associated with a negative experience in my life.

My contempt for the ‘phantom driver’ (Mr. ‘miss and hit’ Guy), on the other hand, existed more on the moral plane. (Please note, my ill-will towards this faceless and nameless individual eventually faded over the years — forgiveness and passage of time are beautiful things, no?)

My fears, at the time, were very present, very real (to me) and also very debilitating. It took a great deal of healing and time before those emotional responses no longer overwhelmed or defined me. Fear and disgust are provoked when we perceive a threat from something.  Each emotion can lead us down a different response path.  While fear primes us to run (‘flight’), disgust readies us to evade something that repulses us. Distinguishing real risk from manufactured or perceived risk requires critical thought. We need to give some time and thought to rationally consider what the real risks of a given situation are. In the end, it’s all about quality of life.

If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”

– Marcus Aurelius –

Select References:

Blancke, Steffan, Frank Van Breusegem, Geert De Jaeger, Johan Braeckman, and Marc Van Montagu (2015/in press). “Fatal attraction: the intuitive appeal of GMO opposition.” Trends in Plant Science.

Levinovitz, Alan. (2015 forthcoming). The Gluten Lie.

New, Joshua J. and Tamsin C. German. (2015). “Spiders at the cocktail party: an ancestral threat that surmounts inattentional blindness.” Evolution and Human Behavior. Volume 36, Issue 3. Pps: 165-173.

Rozin, P., Haidt, J., & McCauley, C. R. (2008). “Disgust: The body and soul emotion in the 21st century.” In D. McKay & O. Olatunji (eds.), Disgust and its disorders. Washington DC: American Psychological Association. Pps: 9-29.

Rozin, Paul, Linda Millman, and Carol Nemeroff. (1986). “Operation of the Laws of Sympathetic Magic in Disgust and Other Domains.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Volume 50, No. 4. Pps: 703-712.

Self-doubt and the fine art of solution aversion: my story

I am a self-professed ‘late bloomer’; in the academic sense, anyway.

In the early nineties, I was a single parent trying make ends meet. I worked 2+ part-time jobs to keep my daughter and son fed, clothed, healthy and happy.  My story isn’t much different than many out there. I leaned on the ‘system’ for a while (yes, had to). As an extension of that, I attended an administrative bookkeeping course sponsored through the provincial government’s social assistance program. I even took advantage of a provincial milk program offered for low income families. Believe me, an extra two gallons of milk a week makes a big difference when you have growing kids. I even made the odd trip or two to the local food bank to stock up when the cupboards echoed their food-thin song (usually around the holidays).

Times were tough. But always there was this niggling little voice at the back of my mind saying: “Cami, if you want to get ahead you really need to go back to school. You need to get a degree.”

I knew that getting an education would help me and my family out. So, every year, from 1993 onwards, I filled out an application to the University of Saskatchewan. Every year.  The sad part is that every year that envelope would sit on my dining room table – unmailed.

just not going letter

Change is hard.  Sure, we are pretty good at identifying problems (and we are great at complaining about them). But how good are we at acknowledging and acting on potential solutions?

A colleague of mine shared an interesting article with me a few weeks ago: Solution aversion: On the relation between ideology and motivated disbelief. The solution aversion model – introduced by Duke University scholars Troy Campbell and Aaron Kay – is tested as an explanation for why people are so often divided over (in particular) evidence. The study suggests that “certain solutions associated with problems are more threatening to individuals who hold a strong ideology that is incompatible with or even challenged by the solution…” Thus, people will deny the existence of a problem (a user-friendly overview of the study can be found here)


denysolutions

The human is my favourite mammal. 🙂  As problems present themselves, we humans are more likely to ignore solutions and move onto information or into spaces where our core beliefs are validated. Humans are also social animals. We like to seek protection within the ‘herd’; we are conformists. So we are highly influenced by the networks of individuals that surround us (see Dan Kahan’s take on this here). In Psychology Today, David Ropeik talks about perceptions of risk and the human response to the ‘feeling of losing control‘ (a scary pre-cursor to solution aversion):

“The more threatened we feel as individuals, the more we look to our tribe [or network] to provide a sense of power and control.”  

– David Ropeik –

What this means is that solutions to problems that counter our deeply held beliefs will be rejected or ignored in favour of our conveniently-shaped beliefs – no matter how factual, practicable, or moral those solutions are.  Rejecting or avoiding solutions helps us to minimize personal social and psychological dilemmas. In other words, it serves the dominant, primal human instinct to survive.

solution aversion cartoon

Where was I? Oh yes! It was the 1990s and I was busy passing up opportunities to pursue a post-secondary education (AKA, avoiding a potential solution). I steered clear of those opportunities for a long time mostly because of self-doubt and fear. I was afraid of failing. I was afraid that I would have less income (although it was hardly possible at the time). I was afraid of racking up debt. I was afraid I wouldn’t fit in and I felt that I was just too old to go to school (this latter bit makes me laugh now). At the time, I told myself “Things aren’t that bad, the kids are doing just fine!” or “I like the people I work with!”. For the most part, I believed that it was safer to stick with the status quo; to keep my head down and winnow my way through life working at low-paying, unsatisfying jobs. Friends and family did not really encourage the whole “go rogue and be a single-parent-student” thing either. They probably held some of the same beliefs that I did. And, for a long time, I allowed their doubts to reinforce my own fears.

There was a bright light though; an exception. A favorite aunt. Aunt S was one of my biggest fans. She knew me well (all of the faults, insecurities and possibilities). Aunt S applauded me every year that I filled out an application to the University.  With her encouragement, I actually mailed in my application in 1997.

Tragically, that bright light was suddenly snuffed out. Aunt S died later that year. As fate would have it, a letter of acceptance from the University of Saskatchewan’s College of Commerce arrived a few days after her funeral.

It was Aunt S’s words of encouragement and her favorite quote “Do one thing every day that scares you” that prompted me to mail the application form that year. But (sadly) it was her death that was the impetus for me to pull myself up by my bootstraps and get on with things. I made my way through and got not one but, two degrees. I worked hard, I played hard, I learned, I networked AND I looked after my kids. They were fed, healthy and happy and they got to their various activities: dancing, hockey, music lessons and school plays. In fact, we all survived. Beautifully.

mekids

Me and the kids and Rocky (circa ~ 1996)

Even when a solution is staring you right in the face, it can be hard to take the ‘leap’ and grab the opportunity.  It often takes a crisis before you re-evaluate where you are at, who you are and what you believe that you are capable of doing. I lost someone very important to me. This was a definitive point in my life; one where I had to hold the mirror up to my face, face my fears and decide what I really wanted for me and for my children.

The ‘road less travelled’ presents a bumpy ride.  Acting on opportunities and following through with solutions can represent huge investments in time, energy and resources. But the rewards can be huge. Today, my children are happy, active adults working at what they love and contributing to their communities. When my kids tell me how proud they are of me, of what I have accomplished, that is reward enough for me.

References:

  • Campbell, T.H. and Aaron C. Kay. (2014). “Solution Aversion: On the Relation Between Ideology and Motivated Disbelief.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Volume 107, No. 5. 809-824.
  • Kahan, Dan. (2012). “Why we are poles apart on climate change.” Volume 488. August 16.
  • Lewandowsky, Stephan, Ullrich K. H. Ecker, Colleen M. Seifert, Norbert Schwarz and John Cook. “Misinformation and Its Correction: Continued Influence and Successful Debiasing.” Psychological Science in the Public InterestDecember 2012  13 no. 3106-131. Available online at: http://psi.sagepub.com/content/13/3/106.full.pdf+html?ijkey=FNCpLYuivUOHE&keytype=ref&siteid=sppsi

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.

2013-10-24 09.48.29

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 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.

Verdict: promise not YET met #GMOs

Biology Fortified just launched a series that digs into and critically examines the claims about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and what they realistically offer up in terms of economic, environmental, social and nutritional benefits.  The first of the series entitled “The Promise of GMOs: nutrition” is penned by Anastasia Bodnar. She tackles the claims about GMOs and enhanced nutrition profiles, allergens, and crop oil content. Her diagnosis?

verdict

I admit it. Those five words depressed me.

But maybe not for the reasons you might think.  My initial thought was how will the GMO naysayers like Vandana Shiva, Gilles Eric Séralini and Jeffrey Smith use these words as a vehicle to add yet another layer of grim, gray paint over the possibilities of genetic engineering and GMOs?

I’m a bit of a history junkie.  I came across this article by Wayne D. Rasmussen -> “The Impact of Technological Change on American Agriculture” published in The Journal of Economic History in 1962. In it, Rasmussen explores the transition from animal power to mechanical power between the early 19th century and into the mid 20th century.  Rasmussen characterizes the evolution (and revolutions) in agriculture over time and backs up his work with data. His data, shown here in graph form, highlights just how far agriculture advanced over more than 150 years in terms of overall production (wheat, corn and cotton) and in the reduction of man hours to produce those crops.

rasmussen1

Adapted from Rasmussen 1962

rasmussen2

Adapted from Rasmussen 1962

The introduction of mechanized innovations and other inputs into agriculture practices not only increased production but they also reduced man hours to production ratios.  The time it took to produce a bushel of grain dropped from an average of 440 man hours per bushel in 1800 to only 38 by 1960.

Now, this did take more than 150 years.  Some innovations were adopted more quickly than others and under different economic circumstances or social pressures. As Rasmussen (1962: 579) states, “rate of adoption…is dependent upon the strength and variations in demand for farm products.”

Today, we are dealing with different kinds of innovations in agriculture: genetically engineered crops.  At one extreme, these crops are held up as a revolutionary technology that will meet the demands for a growing world population while at the other end of things they are unfairly demonized as harbingers of evil. And maybe the truth (and value) lies somewhere in the middle.

An FAO study conducted in 2011 reported that 43 per cent of the ag labour force in developing countries was comprised of women and most of the time spent in the fields by these women was weeding.  In South Africa, new varieties of genetically engineered have been introduced that cut down that weeding time. Not revolutionary by any means but good news, right?

verdict2

There’s still loads of opportunity ahead.  But there are barriers.  It is hard to get past the constant drumbeat of propaganda that is misleading, drives public opinion and can impact formation of sound public policy.

Even if the value of genetically engineered crops and GMOs winds up to be something that is less economic or nutritional and more ‘social’ (like, reduced weeding times) who are these people to stand in the way of that ‘promise’?

Dr. Amanda Maxham in her #GMOMonday post at Ayn Rand Centre for Individual Rights says “GMOs should not be held to impossible standards or justified with lofty world-saving promises.”  I agree with her. I also echo her closing statement:

amanda maxham1

FarmTech poll summary: the ag and food conversation

I had the opportunity to speak to a large and engaging group of farmers and industry people at this year’s FarmTech in Edmonton. It was my first FarmTech and it was a great experience!

The title of the presentation was The Art and Science of the Ag and Food Conversation. It combined some mythbusting with a bit of ‘landscape analysis’ of our often convoluted conversational spaces around ag and food. Human cognitive habits figured in there heavily (see my blog post on this). I conducted a live poll (via Poll Everywhere) during both sessions and folks were kind enough to participate.  Here is a summary of the combined results from both sessions.

Almost everyone (95%+) in the audience(s) participates in ag and food conversations and quite often (not surprising, given the audience). Eighty-five percent (85%) of voters said that they have had an experience where things got “ugly” in an ag and food conversation.  This speaks to the ‘complex conversational terrain’ (as I refer to it) that agvocates have to deal with and, of course, to the growing ag industry image problem.

how often chat

And… it turns out that Twitter is KING  (according to @MichealWipf) in terms of preferred social media platforms (see graph below). Tweet on!!!

twitter is king Wipf

what social media platform

I often bring up another related issue: common misconceptions about who the experts really are out there.  In the polling results, ‘false experts / celebrities’ came out as #1 with 63% of the votes as primary sources of misinformation. There are many examples of psuedo-experts out there: Dr. Oz, Joseph Mercola, Pam Anderson (the “large animal expert”).  For the record, quite a few people commented that an “all of the above” option on the poll would have been useful. My bad.  That’s the hazards of developing surveys ‘on the fly’ sans peer review.  Anyway, had I included it I suspect that most, if not all, responses would have wound up in that category.

primary source of misinfo

Some of the most difficult conversations I have ever had about ag and food has been with close friends and family.  When things are personal, it can get difficult for some of us.  According to the poll results of our audience(s) at FarmTech, votes were split across ‘family/friends’, ‘acquaintances’, and ‘online people.’

most difficult

One of the biggest struggles that most people have is (quickly) finding reliable information to clarify or confirm information and to find sources in response to questions. Having followed ‘contentious ag issues’ for some time, I find that there are MORE than enough good sources out there (I’ve inventoried some links to good sources here and here).  The problem is that these sources are so widely distributed across different platforms (internet and social media) and organizations and not always easy to find through a Google search. In my opinion, we need an online searchable platform that allows users to search according to different parameters (eg. terms, contents, videos, themes, etc); a platform that can link to the best, most credible sources out there without getting ‘muddied’ by the all the other ‘junk information.’

When I am stuck and not sure where to find information from good sources, I turn to my colleagues in agriculture and/or science.  And it appears that many of the folks at FarmTech do too.

seek out info

As we move forward with our conversations, we need to stay informed.  We need to do research and we need to choose our words wisely.  What we say is not near as important as how we say it.  We need to claim the conversational space in a way that makes sense for us as individuals (online, at church, at the hockey rink, around a bonfire or at the dinner table).  And we need to connect with people’s values and meet them on common ground.  This is important in developing new narratives around ag and food. No matter what our individual expertise or knowledge is, or how or in what way we contribute to the conversation…

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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 3 (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.3 What is the Canadian attitude towards GM foods like? In farmers? The agriculture industry? The federal government? Environmentalists? The average consumer?

Whoa. Lots of questions there.

First, it’s really hard to measure opinions and perceptions of GM foods. It is evident, however, that public understanding of biotechnology and genetic engineering and crops is very low.  Consumer preferences of GM food play out in different ways under different survey conditions which speak to “wildly differing results” of studies. Results are a function of questions asked, under what conditions and in what context.  And there always seems to be a marked difference in ‘stated’ preferences (under survey conditions) and actual ‘revealed’ preferences (buying behaviour). This latter sentence probably speaks to your question of how the average consumer perceives and acts with respect to GMO foods.

Farmers? Well, it would seem that farmers like them.  At least those that are not organic (organic growers cannot use GM crops according to the Canadian Organics Standards). Canada now ranks fourth in the world in terms of acres planted to genetically modified crops, up from fifth the year before with Canadian farmers in 2012 planting nearly 29 million acres of GM crops (ref).  Out of a total of almost 89 million acres of farmland in the country, that represents a lot (By the way, farmers that use GE crops also use other crops produced through traditional methods of plant breeding and hybrids, etc.  They have to as it is important to “rotate” crops to manage weeds and to maintain the soil health of the farmland). Other crops grown would be those produced through conventional means (traditional breeding techniques, hybrids, etc).  Currently, ~ 1.7 million acres are attributed to organic production in Canada.

Canada’s economy is primary industry based: mining, oil and gas, agriculture.  In 2012, agriculture directly provided one in eight jobs, employing 2 million people and accounting for 8.1% of the GDP.  In that same year, Canada was the fifth largest exporter and sixth largest importer of ag and agrifood productions in the world.  Ag is important.  And so is any kind of crop variety that can lower inputs and enable producers to manage the land in an environmentally sustainable way.

image3

Source: http://postalpicture.blogspot.ca/2010/06/harvesting.html

How about government? Different jurisdictions in the world regulate food and agriculture slightly differently.  Unlike the European Union, Canada’s regulations have and continue to be based (mainly) on science.  The Canadian regulatory system is overseen by Health Canada, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Environment Canada.  The regulations here focus on product novelty, not the process used to create the product. Hazard is determined by the ‘trait’ of the product not the way in which it was produced. So a conventional product may be just as likely to be deemed hazardous as anything developed through genetic engineering techniques. Products produced through conventional means have different standards applied to them. Regulatory oversight is much simpler for conventional products because scientists have no idea what the exact genetic changes are in them, unlike in the case of a GMO with a similar novel trait.  In practice, Canada’s regulations are very stringent for GMOs. On average, it takes 13 years and a 140M$ to develop and bring a new GM crop variety through the regulatory system. Over the past two decades, the time it takes to navigate the regulatory process has almost tripled due, for the most part, on the political actions of anti-GM interest groups (see parts 1 and 2).[1]

Environmentalists? Well, I think that we know where the emotive, destructive and politically motivated ones stand on this topic.  Until their attention shifts to the ‘next big donation-generator,’ genetically engineered anything is up for grabs.  I foresee a shift though as we develop crop varieties that have more consumer benefits (nutritional value (like Golden Rice) or reduced transfats or maybe a peanut developed with the allergen knocked out of it… you get where I’m going here). Also, I think that people have to open their eyes up to what is going on in developing countries.  Many of the challenges that those people face in terms of food production can be addressed with pest-resistant, virus-resistant, drought-resistant varieties. Genetic engineering techniques are precise and varieties can be developed quickly without waiting for successive generations as we have to with varieties produced through traditional breeding techniques.

I think that we have to start looking more ‘holistically’ at ag and food production.  The whole thing is so deeply divided right now.  You are either perceived to be pro-GM and bought wholly by industry or you are anti-GM and are the usual ‘activist suspect’ and wholly anti-GM.  I think that when you get past the politics and propaganda and dig down into the evidence (and the good science) you see that things are not so black and white.  Do we need to judiciously regulate products of biotech? Yes! Absolutely! Do we? YES.  Does it always have to be one or the other? GM or organic? No, I’d say that is short-sighted.

What about developing a genetically engineered crops and plants that can be managed through organic methods and practices? Plausible, no?  All ag is good ag in my opinion.  Whether it is organic, conventional or GM.  I do take issue with how agriculture production and practice is vilified in the media.  The rhetoric just distracts us from the real problems that we need to tackle like waste, storage, hunger, disease, pests, drought, the environment, etc.


[1] And here’s the irony:  Critics often hammer the seed companies about being ‘monopolistic’ (it’s an oligopoly, by the way – 6 big actors).  But guess what? Even with the extension of the regulatory process, the system is no more robust than it ever was. AND because it is so costly and time intensive, the only companies prepared to take on these costs is big ag. Small and medium business can’t engage even if they wanted to.  Can’t afford it.

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GMOs and Public Perceptions: Part 1, Part 2, Part 4, Part 5.

GMOs and Public Perceptions: Part 2 (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.2 How do anti-GM movements (e.g. Greenpeace vs Golden Rice) gain momentum? Is there any legitimacy to them?

image2The whole ‘momentum’ thing is multi-faceted. Did you know that almost 72% of North American adults have mobile technology and tap into online networks? This is significant when we consider the whole notion of “information” and the “information age.” We look to the Internet and our social media networks to ask our questions, get information.  And there is a lot of misinformation out there.  Especially about farming, technology and food production. The anti-GM movements are really adept at using our networks to circulate misinformation and to feed into our fears.

Factor into this our human cognitive habits:

1)      Humans are conspiratorial thinkers: Public Policy Polling (2013) conducted a survey earlier this year where (among other things) it found that 29% believe aliens exist; 20% of voters believe there is a link between childhood vaccines and autism; and another 14% of voters believe in Bigfoot. Conspiracy theories are a way humans react to uncertainty and powerlessness in our society.  Our brains jump into analytical overdrive … so that we can create a story that we can understand around something that defies understanding.

2)      People are conformists: As human beings, once we glom onto a belief or ideology, it can be difficult for us to move from that path. Our loyalties to these ideologies are communicated and reinforced by people that are closest to us; by those that influence us. The trouble with this is that if we are faced with scientific facts that quite literally shake the ground beneath our fictional ‘sacred cows’ we are more likely to ignore them and move onto the information that validates our beliefs (this is also known as ‘confirmation bias’).

3)      People are pattern seekers:  We humans like to ‘connect the dots’ …from A to B and everything in between. In fact, all animals do this.  This is referred to as ‘associational learning’ or ‘patternicity’.  It is the tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise. This is why we can easily see the man in the moon. Anecdotal association is a form of patternicity. We hear anecdotes everywhere. For instance, “My cousin tried this herb and he was cured of his diabetes.”  But anecdotes are not evidence. And while science and its methods and protocols are only a few hundred years old – superstition and magical beliefs are an age-old part of the human condition. So, anecdotal thinking comes more naturally for people.

4)      Finally, people think in ‘pictures’ as a way to visually organize and process information using parts of the brain that pulls together the emotional and creative. Unlike words that will go in one ear and out the other, Images go directly into long-term memory where they are forever etched. This is why the term ‘Frankenfood’ is so incredibly powerful and visually provocative and why it is so widely used in memes and in anti-GMO narratives.

This is why the anti-GM movement has been so successful.  Actors in the movement understand the human condition, they know how to use the Internet, they recruit celebrities and they leverage mass media to push their agendas. Think about it. Activists can recruit the ‘citizen journalist’ (anyone) and they can get them to circulate the propaganda AT NO COST AT ALL.  It’s a good business model.  Although, I don’t think that most people consider organizations like Greenpeace or PETA as corporations.  But they are highly corporate (bottom line motivated for memberships, donations and they have to compete for those dollars with other NGOs).  These organizations can get away with more (than what we think of as traditional corporations; eg, Monsanto, Cargill, Dow, Bayer, BASF, etc) because they play by a whole different set of market rules.  Gross misrepresentation of facts and fear-mongering are key tactical strategies of any activist movement.  Sadly, NGOs and interest groups can carry out these activities knowing full well that there will be no legal repercussions.  No accountability means no ethical boundaries. On the road to a fictitious town called Altruism, ethics are quickly thrown under the wheels of the Activist bus.  And passengers (the public) are often none the wiser. There have been some real costs to all this (see: https://www.google.ca/#q=counting+the+cost+of+the+anti-gm+movement).

Now, the upside of activism is that it allows the public to voice their concerns and to legitimately lobby for change.  These actions make corporations and government accountable for their actions and activities.  And that can be a good thing and is an important part of democracy and democratic engagement.  But sometimes activities are destructive (GR in the Philippines, GM wheat at CSIRO in Australia, etc) and manipulative (scary memes, bad science trussed up as good science (Seralini study, Seneff study, etc)) and wholly misrepresents things. It’s difficult for most people to distinguish between good and bad science – – – between good, balanced reporting and rhetoric in the media.

We live in a messy social media world where, to me, the democratic model plays out like it’s on steroids.  The truth is that good, reputable science – whether it’s medical, agriculture, or engineering – is not scary or sexy.  It doesn’t resound off walls like a marching band.  And it doesn’t come with press conferences or book and movie releases.  This means that good science doesn’t always make for good headlines or good stories.

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GMOs and Public Perceptions: Part 1, Part 3, Part 4, 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.