By Tom Collins
Cash croppers need to be ready to talk about the benefits of modern agriculture down at the grocery store and at a church dinner.
That’s the message from Grain Farmers of Ontario directors as the propaganda war against technology heats up. The GFO wants farmers to follow its lead and enter the public debate to promote their crops and combat the vitriolic environmentalist attacks on genetically-modified crops.
The GFO began promoting the safety of genetically-modified crops among city residents last year. The organization had booths at the Toronto marathon and the Honda Indy Toronto car race. Mark Huston, the director for District 2 (Kent County), said the GFO tries to deliver the message best suited for its audience and the Honda Indy was a great opportunity to talk about how important the ethanol industry is.
“The more we can tell our story, the better off we’ll be,” said Huston. “If we’re not the ones telling our story, somebody else is going to do it and we can’t control the message.”
Dave McEachren, director of District 4 (Middlesex), is one of the brave ones. He not only speaks to groups about farming practices, he flipped the slogan of “If you ate today, thank a farmer” on its head. At Chicago O’Hare airport a few years ago, he thanked people for eating. He’s done it about half a dozen times over the years.
“It sparked some good conversations,” he said, adding that when they learned he was a farmer, they asked a million questions.
If he overhears someone at a restaurant or a grocery store talking about farming practices or GMOs, he will introduce himself and offer to answer questions. He knows speaking to the public isn’t for every farmer but farmers need to be trained to field tough questions. The GFO has fact sheets for members willing to speak to groups. The GFO also encourages farmers to contact and speak to local service clubs and schools.
“It’s not something we had to do as farmers 30, 40, 50 years ago, but maybe we should have been,” McEachren said. “But how often does a doctor talk to the general public about his practices in the hospital?”
He added that in his county they have started erecting 2 ft. by 4 ft. signs on fields close to urban areas. The signs say what is being grown and how it impacts consumers. One sign says that 7,500 loaves of bread will come from every acre in that wheat field. Another sign announces how many litres of diesel fuel can be made from an acre of soybeans.
The growing pressure of environmentalists on public opinion was discussed at several GFO district annual meetings in January. A 2016 Health Canada poll found that many Canadians believe GMO foods involve injecting foods with hormones, antibiotics, steroids or other substances. The survey also found only 22 per cent supported the development and sale of GMOs in Canada.
A poll last summer by the Toronto-based Ontario Science Centre found that 52 per cent of 1,614 respondents in an online poll of randomly selected Canadians agreed that GMOs are bad for your health.
Keith Black, district 8 director (Huron), said farmers are losing the battle to educate the consumer.
“If you actually go into the statistics a little bit further, of these 52 per cent that said they were against GMOs, ask them what a GMO is. And maybe only 10 per cent of them know what it is,” Black said. “Part of it is people aren’t educated, and part of it is the activists are very well funded, very well spoken and very well educated. These activists, you might as well not even talk to them. Their mind is made up. You’ve got to talk to the people they are talking to.”
Lloyd Crowe, director for District 14 in Eastern Ontario, said it’s becoming difficult for farmers. “Even at church, if you say how much you love Roundup, you might as well say you love Hitler. I try to explain to people, we’re under attack from disease and insects. What are we supposed to do? We can’t all become organic farmers.”
Crowe said it’s also important to not be argumentative. Be humble and ready to counter some untruths with truths.
Scott Persall, director of district 5 (Elgin and Norfolk), said there is a real disconnect between urban residents and farmers and farmers have to put a personal touch on the response.
“You can’t just quote science,” he said. “I grow GMOs on my farm, and I eat the food that I grow on my farm. I believe it’s safe for my family to consume. If we can share that story more often, people will understand that we’re not growing something that we wouldn’t dare eat ourselves.”