It can feel like farmers are being attacked from every angle, and often it feels undeserved. While agriculturalists try to make a living using the latest and greatest science available, misunderstanding, and anti-technology activists make it hard.
But is it always like that?
While many in agriculture showed collective outrage over the so-called Impossible Burger, science supporters missed a critical benefit hiding in the controversy. The Impossible Burger is one of the few consumer-facing companies that proudly boasts GMO ingredients – and customers still flock to it.
The team at Impossible Burger showcases the climate-saving benefits biotechnology can provide by showcasing the value of soy leghemoglobin – the key protein element that gives the Impossible Burger its flavor and texture – is a genetically engineer protein. Soy leghemoglobin is made by splicing soybean DNA into yeast, which is then produced in large-scale fermentation.
Seeing this market success, can it be duplicated to promote GMOs and other ag technology?
“I think it’s everybody’s responsibility who is involved in agriculture to be involved in communicating,” says Robb Fraley, who commercialized the first genetically modified soybean and now acts as a communicator for the industry. “When I was growing up on a small farm in Illinois, more than half of the people who lived in the state were involved in agriculture. Today it’s less than one per cent.
“It’s the responsibility of everyone involved in food and agriculture to reach out to the other 99 per cent regarding the importance of new scientific advances to increase food production and improve the sustainability of farming,” he continues.
Think back to the early 1990s when the FLAVR SAVR tomato was commercialized – albeit short lived. It carried promise to reduce waste and improve flavor, a promise that never came to fruition.
“When the first GMO product, the FLAVR SAVR tomato, came out people had no idea what GMO even meant,” says Kurtis Baute, climate change activist who produces frequent videos promoting science. “It was something that really came out of the dark for them, and it was surprising and scary for many. Because of that, we ended up shelving the idea.”
The long and short of it, if you need a reminder, is public backlash led to pulling FLAVR SAVR tomatoes from the shelf – despite the scientific reality there was no risk in consuming them. People didn’t know what they were, and ignorance bred fear, which manifested itself into nixing the product.
Fear lives on. Activist groups around the world are still fighting against GMOs, despite what has now been more than 20 years of research indicating no adverse human or environmental effects.
And the stakes are high. GMO products could be the key to reducing the impact of climate change and tackling hunger and food insecurity around the world. If science isn’t trusted, GMOs and other modern practices are at risk.
Protect Advanced Breeding Techniques
The clock is ticking for plant breeders in Canada as they wait to hear the outcome of new guidance for Novel Food Regulations focused on plant breeding.
Whatever decision is made regarding breeding techniques could make or break the future of plant breeding in Canada. This decision could directly impact how gene editing, through technologies such as CRISPR/Cas9, is regulated.
“Cas9 [based gene editing] is a great example of something that’s happened naturally for billions of years and now we’re applying a process to our benefit,” says B.C.’s Baute. “It’s important to communicate the benefit. This technique will be more precise, and we’ll know exactly what we’re breeding for, compared to older breeding techniques.”
CRISPR/Cas9 and other gene editing technologies could revolutionize the breeding industry — if given the latitude to be used. The precision associated with the technique results in better products, faster production and the ability to cater breeding to the needs of today’s farmer and consumer.
“We need to be champions and advocates across the biological, the digital and the agronomic space to amplify the accurate messages,” Fraley says. “Because it’s just one per cent of the population in agriculture reaching out to the 99 per cent.”
It’s never been more critical than today to advocate for science literacy. While social media, television and other platforms represent opportunity to talk about science, it also dispels a tremendous amount of misinformation.
Start the Conversation
It’s easy to overload people with facts. But the fact is, most people who don’t have farming backgrounds don’t care about the nitty-gritty details of scientific testing as a farmer might. It takes a different approach.
“Anytime you are promoting scientific ideas, you’re going to have people who are not excited about them,” says Kevin Folta, professor at the University of Florida. “It applies to all science, whether you’re talking about genetic engineering or climate change.”
Before starting the conversation, think about how to be a better communicator. Here are a few tips to get the conversation started the right way:
- Avoid inundating people with facts and figures. Talk about why you care about using science on your farm. For example, gene editing can be used as a tool to fight hunger and keep farmers in business.
- Cater your conversation to the person you’re talking to. If talking to another farmer, feel free to get into the details and processes. When talking with someone who knows little about agriculture, meet them where they are.
- Ask questions and show empathy. Listen, and show them you are listening. People are passionate about their food — and they should be. Learn more about what motivates them and their fears, acknowledge them and keep this information top of mind when talking about GMOs or other controversial topics.
Employing these three tactics helps get the conversation off on the right foot.
Europe Serves as a Warning
Farmers looking for new opportunities to use the latest and greatest technologies in agriculture: steer clear of the European Union. Policies in the region are virtually devoid of scientific reason and instead are political decisions based on pressure from activist groups, along with misunderstanding and emotions.
For example, the 27-member countries are facing a new proposal called the Farm to Fork Strategy that threatens farmer and rancher access to technologies and could force them to abandon common farming techniques.
“I’m not sure there was much science involved [in creating the Farm to Fork Strategy],” says David Zaruk, EU risk and science communications specialist. The proposed strategy, in a nutshell, would reduce pesticide use by 50 per cent, fertilizers by 20 per cent and convert 25 per cent of all agricultural land to organic production under the assumption these moves would reduce the impact of climate change.
This isn’t the first-time agricultural practices have come under fire in the EU either. The countries previously passed regulations which require all products made with gene editing technology to be labeled as GMO – regardless of whether or not new genes were introduced in the process.
Researchers in the EU who oppose such rules are between a rock and a hard place, Zaruk explains. Many scientists who support GMOs, gene editing, pesticide use and other common agricultural technologies find themselves without jobs or under attack personally from activist groups.
“Most of the scientists that do speak out are retired,” he continues. Regardless of the risk, Zaruk still speaks out about the benefits of changing policies to enable farmers to use the latest agricultural technologies available and encourages other scientists to do the same.
The EU can, and should, serve as a warning to other countries about what happens when science is ignored in the policy arena — and what happens when agriculturalists aren’t consulted when planning policy.