GENERATING SUPPORT FOR AGRICULTURAL INNOVATION
BY STAN BLADE
“The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe it.”
I realize that quoting famed astrophysicist and science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson is a strange way to begin a column on innovation. However, over the past month, I have been thinking a great deal about how the work that scientists do is understood and appreciated by society. In the last few weeks, I have participated in a number of events that have focused on assessing our performance in the agri-food sector. Have you ever wondered how the ag sector is doing in convincing the larger population of the importance of technical innovation?
My first experience was an invitation to participate in CRISPRcon, an event with the subtitle Science, Society and the Future of Gene Editing, and I have written about CRISPR technology in a previous column describing the amazing potential of gene editing in agriculture and food. The intent of this University of California, Berkeley event was to address some of the errors that were made with transgenic technologies over three decades ago. The question posed was how do we create space for discussion of a new technology that may reinvent our ability to improve biological systems?
While we can describe the remarkable power of this new scientific tool that has the capacity to make precise changes in the DNA of living cells, we also need to hear from people who may be impacted by the new technology. This includes doctors and their patients, research scientists, consumers, environmentalists, farmers and the rest of the business community. We are in the early days of understanding how CRISPR is going to be regulated by government, which will be determined in part by the opinions of citizens. CRISPRcon proved to be a good start to this needed dialogue.
The second event was the University of Alberta Agricultural, Life and Environmental Sciences faculty’s screening of a new documentary film entitled Food Evolution. I highly recommend watching it. We hosted the showing at the Garneau Theatre in Edmonton. Narrated by Tyson, the movie attempts to distinguish between the emotional and evidence-based arguments being made in the genetically modified organism (GMO) debate. The faculty hosted a panel of speakers who took questions from the audience about why science is no longer trusted and how trust can be restored. Encouragingly, 450-plus people with diverse backgrounds actively engaged in thinking about the issue of trust and technology.
My third experience was chairing the recent Public Trust Summit organized by the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity (CCFI) in Calgary. The aim of this conference was to identify the issues our industry faces and examine potential solutions. CCFI president Crystal Mackay outlined survey results from 1,300 Canadians illustrating that opinions about trust in the Canadian food system currently vary widely between various demographic groups. The theme of the meeting was “tackling transparency,” which resonated through the talks of many speakers. We all know that food is a topic at the heart of debates where science, technology and citizens meet. To quote speaker Jason Clay of the World Wildlife Fund, “there are 7.4 billion food experts who exist on the planet today.”
We live in an extraordinary time in which new ideas have the potential to dramatically improve food availability, nutrition, quality, affordability and enjoyment. At the same time, there is a rising tide of concern about science, which at times becomes active distrust or denial and generates accusations of elitism. We in the agri-food sector need to keep working with citizens to show that we are acting with integrity and transparency, and that our focus is on the greater good. If we are successful, society will recognize that we are not in opposition but rather share the same values.
Stan Blade, PhD, is dean of the Faculty of Agricultural, Life and Environmental Sciences at the University of Alberta.