Communicating the Science of Agriculture

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

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

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

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

 

Kevin and me.

Kevin and me.

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

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

 

Connecting with health food educators: a great experience!

Dr. Steve Savage and me at Nutrition File Seminar, February 2014.

Dr. Steve Savage and me at Nutrition File Seminar, February 2014.

Earlier this year, I was invited by Alberta Milk to speak at its Nutrition File Seminar (Calgary and Edmonton) alongside some pretty terrific people including: Dr. Steve Savage, agriculture speaker, writer and myth-buster; Shirzad Chunara from Alberta’s Ministry of Agriculture; Terry Fleck from the Center for Food Integrity; and Herman Barkema, DMV, PhD and Professor of Production Animal Health with the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Calgary. We had the opportunity to speak to a room full of bright, engaged registered dieticians about different facets of the food production value chain.

Guess what I talked about? :)

Anyway, the good folks at Alberta Milk invited me to take my 45-minute talk and distill it down into a 1000-word article for the August issue of Nutrition File for Health Educators newsletter (a real challenge for a wordy-person like me).  Success! Here it is:

“Like ships in the night? Consumers and genetically modified foods: adrift in a sea of misinformation.”

NFFHE Newsletter – August 2014

(Check out the hyperlinks to some credible web sources that are embedded at the end of the article.)

 

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Retraction reaction…

Cami Ryan:

Mark Lynas just tweeted that the Seralini study is being republished in a low impact journal.  Hmmmm… kind of explains why my dated blog post on FCT’s retraction of the Seralini study has suddenly come up on the radar for some folks. Check out the comments. Add some more!

Originally posted on Cami Ryan:

The recent retraction of the Séralini study by the journal of Food and Chemical Toxicology journal (more at Retraction Watch) has been a hot topic over the past few weeks.  The editors of the journal wrote a letter (Letter_AWHayes_GES (1)) to Seralini on November 19, 2013, inviting him to voluntarily withdraw the article.  In the event that Séralini chose not to do so, the editors informed him that they would retract the article.  Apparently, Séralini opted not to withdraw and the article was retracted by the editors in late November.

The Séralini study should never have been published in the first place. There were fundamental problems with the study (even grammar errors) which makes me question the quality of peer review — not to mention the low number of rats used and lack of controls.

Sample size and controls, in this case, represent huge red flags. There are well…

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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.

The dose makes the poison.

Paracelsus was a 16th century Swiss German physician, alchemist, astrologer who found the discipline of toxicology. He came up with this basic principle of toxicology: The dose makes the poison.

“All things are poisons, for there is nothing without poisonous qualities. It is only the dose which makes a thing poison.”

So many of us misunderstand basic chemistry and what ‘toxic’ really means. I can relate. Chemistry was my WORST subject in high school. Most of what I have learned (and since become interested in) has been cultivated through my PhD studies and in projects since then.

Toxicity is an indicator of how poisonous a substance is to a biological entity. Any chemical can be toxic if absorbed or consumed in large enough amounts. Chemistry is all around us and we are all comprised of chemicals (matter). Some chemicals are man made others occur naturally: in our bodies, manufactured in plants, in our food and in the air we breathe.  In fact, there are more naturally occurring chemicals than man-made ones.  Chemical reactions and interactions in our bodies occur all the time.

Joni Kamiya-Rose posted this status update the other day on Facebook which, in turn, inspired my blog post for today.

joni rose toxic

To Joni’s last point… YES, wouldn’t that be great! I can’t imagine anyone who wouldn’t want safer options.

To (further) clear up misunderstandings and provide some context on toxicity, I crafted this table.  In toxicology, the median lethal dose, LD50 (see column 3) is the dose required to kill half the members of a tested population after a specified testing time. The test was developed by J.W. Trevan in 1927. In the table , I outline a variety of familiar (some less familiar) materials and their toxicity levels.  Please note: the LD50 levels outlined in the table below are based on oral ingestions by rats.  Toxicity rankings are based on the EPA’s categorization (I through IV) (Title 40 of the Code of Federal Regulations).

toxicity table

 

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.

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Adapted from Rasmussen 1962

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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?

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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:

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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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