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:

A GMO by any other name would smell sweeter

Originally published March 19, 2015 in the Manitoba Cooperator

The terminology used to describe modern plant breeding gives it a bad name


Canola in bloom

Canola in bloom

Google reveals a plethora of ideas for “How to choose a name.” It has suggestions for your baby, your dog, your business, your blog and more.

Have you ever wondered what the discussion would be around food and agriculture if plant scientists sought similar advice when naming genetically modified organisms (GMOs)? They’re immersed in science, their everyday field, and the terminology of their everyday language. “Transgenic plant breeding” and “biotech crops” are also used to describe the breeding methods, but the terminology has created fear, apprehension and misunderstanding for many consumers. Even when people do not know what a GMO is they believe they should be feared and avoided. For an example, see “What’s a GMO?” for Jimmy Kimmel’s take on the subject.

So instead of technology moving forward to provide solutions to drought, famine and disease it sits on a shelf while a heated public debate ensues.

But where would we be if a different name had been chosen? GMOs are a precise extension of conventional plant breeding, changing only one to three genes instead of 10,000 to 800,000. It takes less than five years to develop a new variety as opposed to five to 30 years. It is a straightforward, accurate, timely and effective process. Humans have been manipulating plant genetics for more than 10,000 years but only recently have breeding practices been called into question. Is it possible the name contributed to the skepticism?

Would have “precision plant breeding” better suited the process? Would have it instilled confidence instead of fear? Enthusiasm instead of activism? We will never know, but as the #farmtofood conversation continues to grow, perhaps we should re-examine the terminology we use and the names we choose.

If we are to bridge the gap between science, industry and consumer, care should be taken to ensure our language is building bridges of understanding not fences of fear. A name needs to be representative and descriptive but should also be clear and concise to all.

Folta alleviates fear of science

Originally published in the March 2015 Canola Digest


Agriculture and food production are in the spotlight now more than ever and GMOs are on the hot seat. But the science is often misunderstood.

Dr. Kevin Folta, horticulture professor and research scientist from the University of Florida, spoke about communicating science at the Manitoba Canola Growers Association’s “Does science belong on my plate?” event in Winnipeg in October.

Kevin Folta - photo by Tyler Jones.

Kevin Folta – photo by Tyler Jones.

Speaking to home economists, dietitians, students, food bloggers, consumers, farmers and industry members, Folta broke down the science, dispelled myths and alleviated any fears one might have had over how our food is produced.

He began by addressing the trepidation consumers have of genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) despite not knowing exactly what they are or how they work. He asked the group if they knew how many crops currently use this technology. The answer in October was eight — corn, canola, soybeans, cotton, alfalfa, papaya, sugar beets and squash. FDA approval of Simplot’s Innate potatoes in November 2014 makes nine.

Folta explained that “transgenic”, rather than GMO, is a more accurate description, meaning plants contain a gene inserted using recombinant DNA technology. This is a precise extension of conventional plant breeding but changes only one to 3 genes instead of 10,000 to 800,000 that can change through conventional breeding. And it takes less than 5 years to develop as opposed to 5-30 years through conventional breeding.

Plant Breeding Chart - courtesy Kevin Folta

Plant Breeding Chart – courtesy Kevin Folta

He described how genes are transferred. It is a straightforward and effective process, not resembling at all the “frankenfood” images often seen on the Internet. And it is tested and safe. In 18 years, not one case of illness or death has been related to GMOs.

While the technology may be relatively new, he reminded us that humans have been manipulating plant genetics for more than 10,000 years. As the world’s population increases, moving forward in developing genetics and production methods will generate better quality and increased yields on the same land-base with fewer inputs. Resistance is one limitation, but this can be overcome.

Many consumers want “natural” food, but Folta advised that nothing we eat is natural. It has all changed from its original form.

Courtesy Kevin Folta

Courtesy Kevin Folta

The public is hungry for knowledge, but torn as to who to believe. Fear and risk are being manufactured and sold by so-called experts, he says. Correlation, not causation is being cited. Biotechnology is only part of the solution in feeding our growing world, but it shouldn’t be opposed for invalid reasons.

The most sobering part of his presentation was learning of available solutions being blocked because of misinformation, fear and activism.

Strawberries could be grown without fungicides by allowing a single gene within the strawberry to be “turned up” all the way, he says. Biotech “golden” rice, rich in Vitamin A, could prevent blindness and death. Root disease could be stopped in cassava, a nutrient rich root vegetable. Drought-resistant corn could be grown. The allergy gene in peanuts could be “turned off”. Black spot and wilt could be prevented in tomatoes. Oil content and quality improvements could be made in soybeans and canola. Diseases could be stopped in grapes, eggplant and citrus crops.

While this technology sits on a shelf, the benefits to farmers, consumers and the environment are being delayed. Most striking are solutions to drought, famine and disease in developing nations not being implemented because of activism from first world countries where food is abundant, plentiful, affordable and safe.

As a farmer, I believe if all concerned consumers had the benefit of attending this informative event, the debate over how our food is produced would stop. The evening was invaluable as a resource for advocacy. If we and others in the industry are able to share our stories and answer questions, perhaps we can help advance science and reason to ensure productive steps continue to taken to improve agriculture methods and food production around the world.


More information on GMOs can be found via the links below.

GMO Answers

Talking Biotech Podcast

Biofortified Blog

Genetic Literacy Project