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 – 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: