“No More Food Fights” is a call to action!

No More Food Fights: Growing a productive food and farm conversation by Michele Payn-Knoper

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Agriculture and food production practices are often misunderstood by the public and maligned in the media.  These days, misinformation regarding farming practice and food quality and safety can circulate like wildfire, fuelled by the tools like Facebook and Twitter. 

“No More Food Fights” is a unique book that navigates the ‘fever swamp’ of propaganda by providing readers with realistic insights into how food makes it to our plate.  Its author, Michele Payn-Knoper, is a professional speaker, farmer, and self-professed foodie. She challenges us to abandon the ‘food fights’ in favor of balanced conversations that are approached with “curiosity, candor and civility.”

knoper quote

Payn-Knoper encourages us to celebrate our choices and to strive to engage in productive dialogue on the science behind agriculture, about what really happens on the farm, consumer perceptions of farming and food and everything in between.

What makes “No More Food Fights” really unique is its design.  Payn-Knoper organizes content around the five senses (touch, sight, sound, smell, taste) along with one more – common sense.  One side is aimed at the consumer perspective (chefs, healthcare professionals, foodies, dieticians, etc) while the ‘flip’ side reveals the perspectives of farmers, ranchers and agri-business.

“No More Food Fights” covers the gamut from biotechnology to grain and livestock production practices to animal welfare to stewardship to fertilizers, pests and protecting the environment – all in an effort to highlight the high quality of North America’s food and feed.  It is an approachable book with insights from a variety of people and professionals who have firsthand experience including farmers, dieticians, food processors, physicians, food safety experts, veterinarians, consumers and scientists.

“No More Food Fights” is a call to action.  It is a call to action for all of us no matter where we sit on the value chain – producer, processor or consumer. We need to approach our dialogues around farming and food with civility.  No negativity, no grandstanding – just good conversation!

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

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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

 

 

Worried about GMOs? Don’t be.

The woo-woo hullabaloo that has transpired out of the publication of the Séralini study has set some chins a-waggin’ and generated a whole lot of debate in the media and on the internet.  How about you? Are you worried about GMOs?

Don’t be. Or at least don’t let Séralini’s sketchy science be the cause for alarm (see more on this on my blog entry dated September 20th): ‘I smell a rat‘).  There have been harsh criticisms of the study by numerous reputable, independent scientists and food safety organizations worldwide. Séralini (and other anti-GMO proponents) claim that there has been no studies done on the long-term effects of GMOs.  Not true.  Here is at least one review of the literature that you should be aware of:

Snell etal (2011) review several studies examining effects GM lines of maize, potato, soybean, rice and triticale.  The studies in question are of two types: 1) 12 long term toxicological studies, where feeding time exceeds well over (up to 2 years) that of the 90 day studies classically used in toxicological studies applied to GMOs; and 2) 12 studies whose duration extended over several generations of animals.

Long story, short – Snell etal (2011) conclude that these studies by public research laboratories do not reveal any safety problem linked to long term consumption of GMO-derived food. 

bias + misrepresentation = politically motivated propaganda

An op-ed, by Rob Wager and me, in the Western Producer (November 22, 2012) You can eat your bugs — and toxins, too was written in response to Alex Atamanenko’s opinion piece “I’d rather eat bugs” from a couple of issues earlier.  Atamanenko heavily leverages the Séralini study which he views as “damning evidence” that “…call[s] into question not only the safety of genetically modified food but the stringency of government regulations and assessments.” Rob Wager and I take Atamanenko to task on his bias and gross misrepresentation of science:

EXCERPTS:

Séralini’s sketchy version of ‘science’:

Séralini’s study was more an exercise in media manipulation than an example of rigorous scientific work. Using a well-constructed public relations strategy and backed by anti-GM organizations, Séralini pushed this study into the media spotlight along with his personal agenda. It’s no coincidence that he launched an anti-GM book and a movie that same week. It appears as if the goal of the study was to “prove” something rather than to objectively “investigate” something.

And what about regulatory oversight?:

Industry manages trials and testing of new crop varieties based on guidelines developed by Environment Canada, Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. It must adhere to strict science-based protocols. It’s important to note that industry doesn’t pay for “approvals” but bears the cost of all trials and tests.

Final thoughts:

Atamanenko takes a biased position here, misrepresenting good science and promoting poor science. It’s just politically motivated propaganda. We think that Canadian farmers and consumers deserve to know the facts.

Related posts:

I smell a rat” (September 20, 2012)

Outstanding summary of Séralini study by Jay Byrne

“More Sheeps than Peeps!” Stories from the Highlands #Scotland

I am not a fan of formal tours. Traveling as often as I do, I like to steer my own ship, drive my own course, row my own boat – so to speak. Particularly from a scheduling perspective. But Scotland is an expansive country and there is so much to see. And, quite frankly, I had no interest in dealing with the stresses of navigating and driving (on the ‘wrong’ side of the road) in a foreign country. Fortunately my colleague, Kari D, agreed. Hopping on the ‘touristy’ band-wagon, we signed up for a 3 day tour of the Scottish Highlands and the Isle of Skye. A great way to finish off a week of meetings in Edinburgh (see Notes on Edinburgh blog post).

Our tour group was small; fourteen of us in total. We were a ‘mixed bag’ consisting of folks from the US, India, Turkey, Russia, Switzerland, China and New Zealand. Our tour guide was a lively character by the name of Bobby T*. Bobby was born and raised in the slums of Glasgow, is a former truck driver and – hands down – one of the best storytellers I have ever met. Bobby’s clipped Glaswegian accent (a bit rougher than what he referred to as the “posh” Edinburgh-ian one) only enriched his storytelling capabilities. His rhythmic voice, and the constant stream of bagpipe music that played over the bus’ speakers, pulled us all into some sort of Scottish-Celt, tour-entrapped hypnotic state of complacency.

“Och! It’s no’ a van, it’s a BUS!… it’s me BABY!” – Bobby (after we referred to the bus as a van. We didn’t make that mistake again!)

Bobby, Highland Experience Tours

The morning of our first day found us at Trossachs National Park where we stumbled along the rugged paths on the shores of Loch Lomond. Next we traveled through Glen Coe and, beyond that, took in the barren beauty of Ronnach Moor.

Me and Ronnach Moor

We rode a gondola up Aonach Mor to enjoy a spectacular view of the Scottish landscape and a sub-standard lunch (*sigh*). Trust me, go for the views and not for the food (the coffee is also not so “grrrrreat!”). Eilean Donan Castle was a real highlight of the day. The rain had stopped by the time we got there and the loch(s) (three lochs meet at this point) glistened under the light of the setting sun. A rainbow appeared, arching over and framing the scene. It was truly magical.

View of the loch(s) from Eilean Donan Castle

Soon after, we stopped for the night at the wee town of Kyleakin on the east coast of the Isle of Skye. At Saucy Mary’s Pub we enjoyed a couple of pints of “Best” beer (if you prefer pale, cold beer to dark, tepid ale like I do – this your brand of beer!) and fresh battered halibut and chips (fantastic!). And what Scotland night would be complete without a dram or two of whiskey? Talisker is distilled on the Isle of Skye and Kari D and I both felt that this was an appropriate choice. Our room at the Glennoch B&B was slightly ‘sketchy’ (but cheap). Kari D peered out our window and said, “We may not have a view of the strait of Kyle Akin, but we got chickens!” (It’s quite common to find small livestock running amok in backyards in the UK).

This is a view of Kyle Akin Strait ;o) – you can see the bridge that spans the Strait connecting Scotland-main to the Isle of Skye (in the far background (left))

Our sleepy, Sabbath Sunday on the Isle of Skye was amazing and the weather cooperated beautifully! The ‘Isle’ is nestled between the Outer Hebrides and Scotland-main. Heather and peat moss dot its massive cleaves of mountains and colorfully blanket its hills. In Skye, according to Bobby, “The sheep ha’ the right of way!”. There are few (if any) fences. As Kari D noted, “Geez, there are more sheep than people on this island!” Yes, indeed. The hills were peppered with hundreds of fleecy bits.

“Leave things as ya’ fin’ ‘em. Respect t’ land and ya’ will be respected.” – Bobby (on the Scots’ relationship with nature)

Kari D and the Highland vista

From our vantage point at the port of Uig, we could see the islands of Lewis, Harris and North Uist (my ancestral clan’s (MacDonald) homeland) in the misty distance. Inland just a wee bit from the port of Uig is a magical little place called Fairy Glen. Everything there seemed to be in miniature – from the tiny loch nestled in the centre of this storybook place to the unusually small, crooked trees that sprouted from the sides of miniature hills. Lovely!

Port of Uig, Isle of Skye

The Fairy Glen, Isle of Skye

We drove past the Quiraing mountains to Kilt Rock and then into the soporific little town of Portree. Only one open store on Sunday in the whole town is a testament to the dominance of orthodox Catholicism in the region. It was a shame, really. The town was full of quaint little shops and we had to settle for window shopping. Despite this and then missing out on a distillery tour (note: several distilleries shut down on weekends during winter season), our day on the Isle of Skye was a real highlight. Well worth seeing.

Kilt Rock, Isle of Skye

After spending the night at Drumnadrochit on Loch Ness (sorry, no sightings of Nessie to report), we headed onto Inverness, then through Cairngorms National Park (the largest in Scotland) and on to Pitlochry. The Victorian charm of Pitlochry afforded us the opportunity to shop for gifts for our peeps back home and for me to stock up on “MacDonald” related paraphernalia. The site of Culloden brought with it rain and more of Bobby’s stories of the historic battle that ended with the final defeat of the Jacobite cause (more than 1000 lives were lost). Our tour ended with a drive past the William Wallace Memorial and a stop at Stirling Castle. All the while, Bobby provided the narrative – painstakingly re-telling stories and correcting the Hollywood versions of historical characters like Wallace and Rob Roy MacGregor.

Stirling Castle, Scotland

Scotland was a treat. I’m sure that my fascination with the country has much to do with my ancestry and my need to connect to previous generations (my genealogical files on the MacDonald side are expanding). Going to Scotland was like going home, in a way. But I have to say, the Highlands and the Isle of Skye are better experienced through the stories of a native Scot. And what better way to do it that than with a tour! Thanks Bobby!

“Whit’s fur ye’ll no go past ye.” notes from Edinburgh

Since stepping off the plane and planting our feet firmly on Scottish soil, the weather has been outstanding. The Norse Goddess, Sol, has seen fit to ride her horse-drawn chariot across clear blue skies for the past few days. Unusual for Scotland, I should think.

Edinburgh is the seat of the Scottish parliament and the largest city by area in the country. Considered one of the major historical centres of the Enlightenment era with the University of Edinburgh at its core, the city earned the nickname “Athens of the North”. It has been home to Robbie Burns, Sir Walter Scott, David Hume and Adam Smith and more.

Adam Smith
Edinburgh (near St. Giles on the Royal Mile)

Edinburgh is also home to Innogen, an organization that houses a great number of enlightened contemporary folks. I travel with fellow VALGEN colleague Kari D and we started the week off there by attending a packed-to-the-18th-century-rafters seminar presented by Alan Raybould of Syngenta. This was the start to our week of meetings set in this most picturesque part of the UK.

View of Edinburgh (New Town) with the Firth of Forth and, beyond that, Fife. Fabulous! 😮

Since then (in addition to work), Kari and I have toured Edinburgh Castle (Bucket List Item #39) and Holyrood Palace (the Queen’s digs when she’s in town), have sipped on a dram or two of the good stuff at a local whiskey society (in New Town) and enjoyed a few Facebook sparring matches as Kari and I match cyber-wits. (By the way, we are officially at an impasse. But there are still a few more days. ;0) ) We are enjoying the independence and hominess of our Edinburgh apartment which affords us the freedom to make our own meals, wash a load of clothes or two and abuse the dishwasher (note to self: need to take a course in how to operate UK appliances).

Me at Edinburgh Castle (just after ‘we’ dropped the camera)

Holyrood Abbey, Holyrood Palace
Edinburgh

So far, so good. I am off for a meeting with P* this morning as we try to carve out a writing strategy for the next year. Then there is dinner tonight with Innogen peeps plus I need to squeeze in a final edit of a case study I’m working on for an AAFC contract. Kari and I are off on a three day tour of the Scottish Highlands on the weekend which we are both looking forward to. We won’t quite make the homeland of my ancestors – the Outer Hebrides – but we will be close! (Bucket List Item #40: Find sample of MacDonald tartan, buy it, frame it, put on wall).

Kari D: “This week in Edinburgh is sponsored by Peroni and brought to you by Tesco.” Yep.

“Whit’s fur ye’ll no go past ye.” – What will be, will be

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Busker
Edinburgh (Castle in the background)