By Patrick Meagher
All of my seven kids are up to date with their vaccinations even though I know five families who tell me that vaccinations cause autism. Why wouldnt they think that? It was the esteemed British Lancet in 1998 that published a study linking vaccinations to autism. If you read or heard about that study what was not to believe? It was a respected medical journal reporting results of science.
But the Lancet got it wrong. It took 12 years to discover the entire study was bunk and in 2010 the Lancet published a retraction. But the bogus science was out of the bag. People dont always read or hear the news every day, so many people might have heard about the link with autism but not the retraction. There are people today running websites to discuss how vaccines cause autism. They are well-intentioned but wrong.
But not all are well-intentioned. Were living in an era where junk science passes for real science far too often. When scare tactics are the modus operandi, its our best clue that something is amiss. Former environmentalists always concede that in the battle for the mind they appeal to emotions, not to the scientific method.
We saw it with genetically-modified organisms. Environmentalist groups oppose them, labelling GM foods as frankenfood. The name stuck and its now in dictionaries. To date there is no credible evidence linking GM food to health issues. But on that subject, you can link many environmentalist groups to a pack of exaggerations, half-truths, assumptions and outright lies.
Neonicotinoid-treated soybean and corn seed is another one of those issues, though less clear. Honeybees die when they ingest too much of the insecticide. In normal farm conditions, neonics are just one of a plethora of bee stressors. But Ontarios environment commissioner has called neonics worse than DDT and the province dropped the hammer, calling for an 80 per cent reduction by 2017. Morrisburg crop farmer Arden Schneckenburger is right when he sardonically quips that whatever you want to believe about neonics, “just give me enough time and Ill find 50 studies to prove it.”
He echoes the sentiments of many farmers: just let legitimate science decide and farmers will accept it. “Just prove it to me,” he says.
Sounds reasonable. Sadly, this is not the age of reason. There are too many groups hooked on a feeling. Some reject science. Others reject eating meat. Some raise animals to the same level as people. Food documentaries like Food Inc. are filled with half-truths. What is a family farm to many is now a factory to some.
I dont know if we should thank social media, the breakdown of family values or the decline in education for the lack of attention span but the world is ready more than ever to embrace just about any titillating sound bite that doesnt require tools of discernment. Just like the old saying, if you dont stand for something, you fall for anything.
One Western Canadian farmer recently argued that facts in your defence are not enough. Alberta crop farmer and self-proclaimed environmentalist John Kolk told the Southwest Agricultural Conference in Ridgetown: “Values weigh five times more than facts in consumer decision-making.”
A frightening thought since a value can hinge on nothing more than emotion.
But there are signs of hope. Many farmers are proactive, informing neighbours before manure spreading. Others publicize management practices on their websites or in their on-farm stores. Packaged foods include more information. A Western Canadian agricultural consultant is raising money to produce a pro-farming documentary. Consumers can now trace some foods back to the farm.
Farm & Food Care Ontario has also entered the court of public opinion and launched seminars to help farmers tell their story. Veal farmer Joyce Feenstra took the seminar after she was actually asked, “Is it true, that veal is so tender because farmers beat the animals with two-by-fours?”
Most farmers are busy raising food and families. But they recognize that they must be agricultural ambassadors and write their own sound bites to create a positive image. Science is on their side and farmers have never been better educated to articulate it.
The alternative is to risk losing a hard-won reputation to provocative anti-farming campaigns and nonsense that permeates Facebook and other mind-numbing online time wasters.
Patrick Meagher is editor of Farmers Forum. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.