Farmers choose science over serendipity

Farmers figure there's already ample opportunity for bad luck to bite them in the derriere, without adding more problems to the list.

Naturally occurring woes such as bad weather, pests and disease are enough to make them chronically wring their hands. Mix in jittery, aging and confused consumers, plus an uncertain future with our biggest trading partner, and even more reasons arise for their collective backs to be against the wall.

So when they perceive a threat to science, one of their biggest allies, they come out swinging.

They create efficient and effective infrastructure, such as Ontario Agri-Food Technologies, an organization designed to connect the products of science with farmers and processors.

They get behind imaginative initiatives such as Soy 20/20, dedicated to finding advanced uses for one of Ontario's most lucrative cash crops, soybeans. They support linkages to areas of great potential for agriculture, especially health and the environment, through avenues to urban Canada such as Mars Landing. And sometimes they bring them all together under one roof, such as the Ontario AgriCentre, and the new Ontario agri-technology commercialization centre, which opened in Guelph last month.

But their drive to reduce obstacles and open doors to greater profitability is never done. As a society, we've decided we're going to pay as little as possible for food. That's not a very helpful position to those we entrust with keeping our plates heaping full with healthy food. And it means that if farmers are going to stay in business, they have to squeeze as much efficiency as they can out of their crops and livestock, while simultaneously taking care of the countryside –so we can enjoy it, too.

To do that, they turn to science. It gives them, their crops, their animals and the landscape a fighting chance. Science provides defence against profit-robbing, debilitating disease and illness. It enhances health-related traits and environmentally friendly production approaches that appeal to consumers. It's an intrinsic part of our drive to keep food safe.

Farmers have repeatedly chosen science over serendipity, and support major investments in research, such as the research agreement between the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs and the University of Guelph. A study released at this time last year showed the annual return on investment to Ontario from that agreement is more than $1.15 billion.

So farmers are touchy when they sense decisions pending that will affect their access to science. And right now, they're on the ceiling about the way they think the province's aggressive stance against pesticides will affect farming.

For the record, the province has said farmers will not be under the same constraints as consumers, who are losing access to cosmetic pesticides. But everywhere, the same question keeps coming up: if indeed pesticides are unsafe for flowers, how can they be safe for food?

Farmers think that's an unfair comparison, and led by the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, they're mounting a campaign to tell their members of Parliament they're not pleased with the government's direction.

Farmers say the criteria used to determine the suitability of certain products has not been spelled out. They want the province to base its decisions about pesticide use on science.

"Ontario farmers depend on science to test our soils for nutrients, our milk for protein content, the effectiveness of ventilation systems in our livestock buildings, and to keep our animals healthy — just about everything that is critical to our success as farmers," says Don McCabe, a federation vice-president. "The process being used by the government would appear to close the door on new product innovation in Ontario, and that's not good for agriculture and that's not good for Ontario."

This polarizing argument is bound to grow. The province will need to be increasingly supportive of agriculture as it looks to farming to pull it out of its economic doldrums.

It can't be encouraging and discouraging at the same time. But it also has to listen to public sentiment about what consumers consider acceptable.

Once again, the need for discussion, and a greater emphasis on communications, is clear.

If there's a middle ground, we'll find it by talking and listening, not shouting from opposite corners.

About The Author

Urban Cowboy

Raising awareness and promoting dialogue about current food and agriculture issues.


Headshot of Owen Roberts

Owen Roberts is a faculty member in the Agricultural Leadership, Education and Communications program at the University of Illinois. As an agricultural journalist, he is the past president of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists and a lifetime achievement award recipient from the Canadian Farm Writers' Federation. His programs and research papers have been recognized nationally and internationally through awards from the Journal of Applied Communications, the National Agri-Marketing Association, the Association for Communications Excellence, and others.