Precision Plant Breeding – Clarifying ‘What’s in a name?’

Originally published April 26, 2018 in the The Manitoba Cooperator 


Canola Blossoms

Science has always led the way in agriculture, and continues to do so today. Yet advances in plant breeding are being met with skepticism, fear and vehement opposition by many consumers.

Perhaps we aren’t listening closely enough to their concerns. Because we understand the science, we assumed they would too. We’ve failed in telling our story, or at least to the right people. Farmers are great at connecting with other farmers but we need to go beyond our online echo chambers and ensure we’re reaching the end-users.

While we’ve lagged behind, fear-based marketing campaigns have swayed consumers while activists continue to stand in the way of efficient, leading-edge plant breeding methods.

We’re frustrated, but we shouldn’t be surprised.

At medical appointments when doctors use confusing terminology, we stop and ask them to explain in terms we can understand. The same can be said for any expert – they know the technical terms and acronyms specific to their fields, but if they’re trying to convey a message, layman’s terms are needed.

Yet in agriculture we continue to use terms such as GMO, GE, GM, transgenic, CRISPR, TALEN, genome/gene editing and biotech crops. No wonder there is apprehension and confusion. Even when people do not know what a GMO is, they believe it something that should be feared and avoided. See “What’s a GMO?” for Jimmy Kimmel’s take on the subject. He sent a camera crew to a farmers’ market near his studio to ask people what they thought GMO meant.

GMO is now a widely recognized, often misused and misunderstood term. It’s used extensively by media and marketers alike. We can’t abandon it, but we can shift to clearer, all-encompassing terminology which covers all the latest advances.

No matter the type of plant breeding used over the last 10,000 years, the goal has always been the same – genetic improvement. Make the plants better – disease and insect resistant, improved qualities and yields. With newer technologies now available, the process has become extremely precise and efficient. “Precision plant breeding” covers it all in clear, concise and understandable language.

The term is a welcoming, open door to further the conversation as to the benefits on our farms, to the environment, the consumer and those in developing countries.

Precision plant breeding is one of the tools available to help feed our ever-growing world and adapt to changes in the environment. It offers solutions to famine, malnutrition, drought, flooding and disease.

We can’t expect unequivocal acceptance without explanation. We need to effectively communicate to the masses the what, when, why, where and how.

Clearer language is a positive step forward in taking down fences of fear and building bridges of understanding.

Not everyone will be on the same page. But hopefully there will be enough consensus to lead the world to the ultimate goal – abundant, safe, affordable food for all.

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Agvocating through art

Originally published in the July 13, 2017  issue of the Manitoba Cooperator


As farmers we don’t often have the opportunity to celebrate and showcase the crops we grow. So, when the opportunity arises, why not take it?

Earlier this year, our local arts centre asked for exhibit ideas for their boardroom gallery. Considering 2017 is canola’s 50th anniversary, I suggested a display of pictures, products and facts to celebrate. It was built around a blog post from last July entitled, Simply Canola, and inspired by the Canadian Agriculture and Food Museum in Ottawa. The museum is commemorating Canada’s 150th birthday and Canola’s 50th anniversary with a nation-wide travelling exhibition, “Canola: A Canadian Story of Innovation” as well as an on-site exhibit, “Canola! Seeds of Innovation.”

Leanne Campbell photo

By far, canola is one of the most recognized crops we grow. There is no doubt it is the shining star of agriculture across western Canada every summer when it blooms. It isn’t unusual to see people stopping alongside the road to snap a picture, or take a ‘selfie’ against its gorgeous sea of yellow. Even those of us who grow it, are taken in by the allure of those bright and beautiful blossoms. Case in point – my extensive collection of photos from 2016.

With less than two percent of Canadians living on farms, there is a huge disconnect between food producers and consumers. Surveys show consumers want to learn more. We’ve been advised to tell our story, our way. So why not tell it through art? Especially when you can celebrate a crop many people are familiar with on a visual level.

Simply Canola is a pictorial diary of the canola we grew on our farm last year. Twenty-six photos, displayed in date order, give a tour from emergence to harvest, from close-ups to landscapes to sunsets. I’m hoping they convey the pride we take in growing this iconic prairie crop. A display case with canola, a sample of products made from it and bright yellow note cards with canola facts add an element of education to the display.

Jennifer Dyck photo

Canola is so much more than a pretty backdrop on the prairie landscape under the summer sun. The impact it has had in Canada and around the world in just 50 years is astounding. As the world’s only “Made in Canada” crop, I’m pleased to have the opportunity to agvocate and celebrate it with my photography in our local community. To date feedback has been positive and encouraging, both from consumers and those in the ag industry.

If you are in Portage la Prairie, please stop by and enjoy our farm’s views and vistas of Simply Canola. The exhibit is on display at the Portage and Districts Centre (11 2 St NE, Portage la Prairie, MB) from June 20th – August 5th in the Boardroom.

Gallery Hours: Tuesday to Saturday, 11:00am to 5:00pm     Click here for directions.      (Note: Boardroom Gallery closed Wednesdays 12:30pm-3:30pm)  


Comments on “Simply Canola” 

“Who knew? Well done!”

“Beautiful, picturesque and educational.”

“Thank you – for this great contribution to the industry.”

“Excellent way to capture beauty and education.”

“I learned so much about canola!”

“Beautiful memories of home.”

“Lovely…and educational.”

Show. Share. Connect.

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Canola in bloom east of our farmyard

Recently I had the opportunity to host the Manitoba Canola Growers booth at an Ag Awareness Expo. Not having done this before, I was a little nervous. But I was advised to, “Be you. Be authentic. Listen for common ground.”

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“It’s what in the inside that counts”

As people stopped by, conversations began to flow and it wasn’t long before nervousness transformed into enjoyment and ultimately, gratitude.  Parents watched and listened as their children exuberantly ‘crushed canola’ and saw for themselves how it’s possible for those tiny black seeds to make clear yellow canola oil.

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“Shaken not stirred”

Youngsters and adults alike enjoyed picking out ingredients to create and customize salad dressing following the simple 2:1:1 ratio – 2 parts canola oil, 1 part acid (vinegar or citrus), 1 part emulsifier (mustard or honey), adding herbs if they wanted to kick the flavour up a notch.

These hands-on activities led to a variety of discussions on food and farming:

  1.   p1170714The patience a farmer needs to wait for the canola to ripen.
  2.  Bees – how they love canola and so many of us love honey.
  3. Half your Plate– how kids custom-creating their own dressings can lead to trying and consuming more salads and veggies.
  4. Canola meal – how the ‘leftovers’ after the oil are crushed and used in livestock feed, and help dairy cows produce more milk.
  5. Baking and cooking – using canola oil to make cakes, cookies, fries or even grilled-cheese.
  6. Ag in the Classroom – some students had done one or both of our activities at their school though AITC but were either anxious to repeat and/or encourage their sibling or parent to do the same.
  7. The variety of Made-In-Manitoba products and booths around us – using honey, jam or beet juice in a dressing. How quinoa can be used instead of greens for a salad and how lucky we are to have so many prairie fruits to add to flavour to our salads in the summer.

ag-expo-portageThe majority who stopped by were genuinely interested in conversation, with many sharing how they use canola oil in their kitchens. This gave me the opportunity to say, “Thank you,” and, “As a canola grower, I appreciate you using a product we grow on our farm.” Something happened in this moment.  A connection was made. Many did a double take, perhaps surprised. When our crops are sold directly to a grain company or processor, there is no contact with the end-user. I’m not sure I’ve ever had the opportunity to directly thank a consumer, but it felt good.

While hosting this booth was a little out of my comfort zone, I’m glad I accepted the opportunity to show, share and connect. It was enjoyable, gratifying and a reminder to express thanks whenever the opportunity presents itself. While I truly value the sentiment behind “Thank a farmer”, appreciation should flow both ways.

So whether you’re a home cook, chef, baker, dietitian or home economist who chooses canola oil, from our farm to your kitchen – thank you.

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Canola field at sunset

Agvocating – Where do I begin?

Originally published in the November 2016 issue of Canola Digest 


With less than two percent of Canadians living on farms, there is a huge disconnect between food producers and consumers. Surveys show consumers want to learn more. In order to give them credible information, farmers and others in the ag industry need to speak up. Advice and workshops on advocating for agriculture, or ‘agvocating’, has been presented at many farm shows/conferences over the last year.

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CAST photo

Dr. Kevin Folta  is a professor, Chair of the Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida and winner of the 2016 Borlaug CAST Communication Award. “Recipients of CAST’s annual award are science/ag experts who demonstrate an ability to communicate through written material, public presentations, and various forms of media.” Folta does it all, and  does it exceptionally well. He speaks across North America and has a strong on-line presence. He offers this advice when discussing agricultural biotechnology with a concerned public.

 

DO:

  • Start with shared values and common concerns. “Like you, I want my kids to eat healthy food.”  “My family lives on the farm. I care about the farm environment. Here’s what I do…”
  •  Have honest conversations about what you know; speak to your strengths.  If you don’t believe it, don’t say it.
  • Disengage when attacks become personal, it is unproductive to continue.
  • Talk about ethics, your experience and your priorities. Remember you cannot fight fear with facts.
  • Sign up for social media accounts – Twitter, Instagram, Facebook. Follow other agvocates. Even if you don’t create content, you can have a tremendous impact by amplifying others’ messages. ie. share good work, making it more visible.  Signing up also ensures that you have control of your own name.

Don’t:

  •  Use the “feed the world” rhetoric.
  •  Dodge discussions on the limitations of genetic engineering/modification (GM). See Folta’s slide deck for more.
  • Ever claim GM is a single solution. It is not.
  • Discount other production methods or tools. All tools are needed going forward.
  • Discredit other forms of genetic improvement  such as mutagenesis.

Take-A-Way:

We have the safest, most diverse and abundant food supply in history. We also have immediate access to information — good and bad. If we engage incorrectly, we make the  broken lines of communication between consumers, scientists and farmers  worse.

To change the hearts and minds of a concerned public, we need to get involved in the conversation — in person, on-line or both. According to studies farmers are both warm and competent, so sharing our stories is critical to ensure and maintain access to ag innovation for everyone.

p1160076So begin with telling your story, your way. Don’t get bogged down in the science and terminology. Explain how precision plant breeding benefits your farm, the environment and food production.

Read, watch videos, listen to podcasts, learn from others, share their stories and practice telling yours. Remember if you don’t have the answer to someone’s question, it is okay to say, “I’ll look into that and get back to you.” Add your voice to the conversation — everyone’s is needed. If we don’t tell our stories, who will?


Kevin Folta resources:

Other Ag resources: