On November 24, 2017, Dow AgroSciences was invited to participate on the first Agriculture Education Teacher’s Symposium delivered to K to 12 teachers, who were eager to learn more about where food comes from and the effects agriculture has on the economy, culture and environment.
During 11 years in academia, I learned about the enormous gap between what scientists find and what the general public perceives. As scientists, we haven’t been very good communicators and we assume that the research done by the Science and Agriculture faculties and the agricultural industry in general is understood by everyone.
So, my main objective in the presentation was to help teachers understand how advances in science have helped agriculture to be a successful and sustainable practice.
I shared the story on the changes in Canadian farming over the past 100 years. We have a lot fewer farmers, so each one takes care of more land to feed an increasing population. Canadian farmers have embraced new innovations in machinery, chemistry and biology. Implementing those changes has been the key to being more productive and using the land efficiently and responsibly, so we have enough resources for generations to come. Farmers are experts on what they do, but the huge disconnect between urban and rural populations creates a knowledge gap between how farmers operate and what the public perceives is necessary to run a farm.
I went into more depth on GMOs, organics and all of the choices farmers can make. For my presentation on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) I explained the basics of genetics, and how modern genetic techniques are similar (but more efficient and predictable), to what our ancestors did 10,000 years ago. They collected and planted seeds from wild plants, ensuring sure they had enough water and the right amount of sunlight to grow. During this time, these early growers noticed that some plants displayed different physical characteristics (that we now know is due to spontaneous genetic changes in the DNA or ‘mutations’). They noticed for example, more kernels per plant, bigger grains, no seed shattering, or higher tolerance to drought. Because of these unique traits, farmers repeatedly selected the improved plants to feed their growing families and societies.
With our increased knowledge of plant genetics, we can now take better advantage of those natural processes by replicating them in the lab using more precise techniques for crops with features such as disease resistance, herbicide tolerance, improved nutrient profile, etc. I also shared important facts on how the use of GMOs help protect our environment by:
- Reducing the number of times crop protection products need to be applied, and so reducing green-house emissions from fuel consumption
- Reducing soil erosion and water run-off, as the use of herbicide tolerant plants allow the efficient control of weeds without tilling the land.
Even though scientific consensus has been reached concluding GMOs do not pose additional risk over the conventional counterparts, there was still skepticism among the teacher audience, wondering how scientists can be 100% about anything. The answer: We study every piece of evidence and then reach an agreement (consensus). Every theory that scientists put together has the chance to change, but when the benefits outweighs the possible risk of something changing, then we embrace that theory and use the technology for our benefit and our society. These benefits include vaccines for our kids or ourselves or diabetics taking insulin, which is a GMO.
When I discussed organic versus synthetic pesticides, I shared with the teachers how herbicides, insecticides and fungicides help protect crops, but more importantly, I explained how exposure, risk and hazard are used by regulatory agencies around the world to calculate the risk of using these products. The main message was that there is risk from everything we are exposed to, everything we do in our lives, from the natural occurring solanine present in a potato, to the botulinum toxin that could be present in honey. However, the amounts we are exposed to are negligible, and we choose to consume (or be exposed to) these products because they bring enormous benefit to us. So when a farmer uses pesticides, he is considering these aspects: Is it needed? Is it good for my land? How much more land would I need to use to produce the same amount if I didn’t use it? Is it safe for me and my family?
There were lots of interesting questions and I was happy to have the opportunity to answer each one of them. The main message was: There is not a single agricultural practice that can be considered the only solution for farming, there are multiple options to choose from, and each producer chooses what is best for his or her customers while focusing on taking care of their most precious treasures: The health of their family and their land.
Science can be overwhelming, and because we are exposed to so much information, it is difficult to know what is true and what is just misinformation or a marketing strategy. As scientists and farmers, we need to understand the other person’s point of view, so we can engage in meaningful conversations that lead to understanding.
David Pinzon grew up in Bogota, Colombia and moved to Canada in 2009 with his wife to study a PhD in Molecular Biology at the University of Alberta. They have one child and are expecting another one. “It is a constant learning to find out what’s the best for them, that’s why being able to share my experience with others is gratifying.” David dedicated 12 years of his life to become a scientist, and with that he developed the abilities to distinguish real science from just opinions. “Now I have the pleasure to see the huge amount of scientific support needed to prove GMOs and pesticides are safe for humans and the environment, so I can take decisions and pass along my knowledge to those that are eager to learn, and trust the enormous amount of effort that scientist do on a daily basis to bring clarity and trusted information to the public.