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.

“Canola: A Canadian Story of Innovation” begins National Tour

Originally published in the March 2017  issue of Canola Digest


Sandi Knight photo

What happens Canada’s 150th birthday and Canola’s 50th anniversary collide? The Canadian Agriculture and Food Museum (CAFM) in Ottawa celebrates with a nation-wide tour of a new travelling exhibition, “Canola: A Canadian Story of Innovation”. This exhibit made its debut at Canola Council of Canada’s “Good As Gold” 50th Annual Convention in Winnipeg on March 7—9. It will be on display at Winnipeg Richardson International Airport in the arrivals hall through March 23rd.

Designed to tell the story of canola to Canadians, this 500-square-foot exhibit is interactive, hands-on and designed for all ages. It is comprised of two C-shaped configurations — one to make you feel immersed in a field of canola, the other as though you are walking into a processing plant. It will highlight canola’s versatility from cooking oil to canola meal, biofuels, ink, plastics and cosmetics. Visitors will learn the history — from a crop that didn’t exist 50 years ago to the multi-billion industry that exists in Canada today. They will discover the on-going science, research and innovation behind canola.

Credit: Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation

Credit: Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation

 

 

 

 

 

Over the next five years, it will travel to museums, science centres, indoor and outdoor exhibitions, hospitals, shopping malls and airports. A map and links can be found on-line at CAFM.

The main gallery of the CAFM will also house a long-term, more in-depth, 2,500-square-foot exhibit.  It will connect to the museum’s demonstration kitchen, providing access for hands-on learning food experiences. The museum, which hosts 200,000 visitors/year, is a working farm, so as guests tour they will see canola growing and learn how canola meal is used in food rations for livestock and poultry.

The CAFM wants to ensure the canola story is accessible to all Canadians, so those unable to visit either exhibit will be able to access information and resources on the website.

Kerry-Leigh Burchill, director general of the CAFM states it was a fortuitous meeting with Simone Demers Collins, market development & promotions coordinator of Alberta Canola, at a Grow Canada Conference in Ottawa that led to this new exhibit to celebrate Canada’s 150th. Burchill said the museum was looking for a crop or a process that had “a very strong connection to innovation by Canadians in the fields of science and technology when it came to agriculture.”  To which Collins replied, “I think that story can be canola.”

Canadian canola grower associations and industry partners then stepped up to the plate to collaborate and sponsor the exhibit.

To ensure accuracy and a balanced representation for the exhibits, a National Advisory Council provided advice and input. The 13 member panel from a wide cross-section disciplines, included Dr. Keith Downey, one of the fathers of canola. Focus groups and surveys ensured terminology used was understandable to the general public.

The goal is to showcase agriculture as an ever-evolving industry, highlight the heritage of this made-in-Canada crop along with the benefits of growing canola from health, food security, environmental, economic and sustainability perspectives. Burchill hopes the exhibit will even inspire young students to chose a career path in agriculture.

Communication and education are key to the advancement of agriculture in Canada. This initiative will be a valuable reminder of just how far the canola industry has come in 50 years.

Courtesy Canola Council of Canada

Thoughts on "Canola: A Canadian Story of Innovation" 

Sandi Knight photo

“I think it’s an opportunity to be able to allow the urban population in particular, and farmers as well, to see where canola came from – the humble beginnings, where it’s going and the variety of products available from canola.” — Bruce Dalgarno, Farmer, Newdale, MB

 

Sandi Knight photo

“When visitors have the opportunity to learn from our farmers, hear their stories about growing ingredients for our recipes and food for our tables, a deeper farm to food connection is made. The display will give Canadians an opportunity to #ExploreCanola.” — Ellen Pruden, Education and Promotions Manager Manitoba Canola Growers/Canola Eat Well

Sandi Knight photo

“As the Canola Council of Canada celebrates 50 years in 2017 we couldn’t be more proud to tell the story of five decades of achievement and transformation in the Canadian canola industry and the exciting opportunities ahead. The exhibition is an excellent example of the innovative and collaborative spirit that’s driven canola’s success and we’re honoured to be able to launch the #ExploreCanola tour at our upcoming Convention.” — Patti Miller, President, Canola Council of Canada

Sandi Knight photo

“It is undeniable that the science, research and innovation behind canola changed how a lot of agriculture is done around the world”. — Kerry-Leigh Burchill Director General, Canada Agriculture and Food Museum

 

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.

kevin-folta

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: