This past weekend I took my entire family and a friend and her mom to the Monsanto open house event. We were treated to a nice non-organic buffet of local style appetizers from maki sushi to tonkatsu. We also got to learn about the Japanese Cultural Center’s collaboration with Monsanto and the National Park Service in preserving the former Japanese internment camp known as Honouliuli.
My kids had a chance to learn about bugs and a community supported agriculture program called Local Inside. I was chatting too much with fellow aggies that I missed the tour. My kids were bummed but the bugs were a fun replacement.
My friend and her mom came back from the tour along with my husband and baby. (Yes, we took a baby into the fields of ground zero GMO and made it back alive. Pretty unbelievable if you believe the Internet.) We started to talk story about what she learned.
She spoke about how excited she was thinking that she might get to harvest corn today. Monsanto is very keen about safety so everyone had to wear safety glasses to go out in the fields. Even my baby got a pair to wear. Well, there was no harvesting but a lot of education about the work that’s done to grow seeds for farms across the world.
At the end of our conversation, she mentioned how the guide spoke about how much pesticide was used in a field. A water bottle was used to demonstrate the quantity. She immediately assumed that the small quantity meant that this substance must be exceptionally toxic if only that much was used.
Her statement really struck me. I never thought that a demonstration of using a soda can over a football field was sending an incomplete message. Farmers are trying their darnedest to allay fears of pesticides but may not be doing themselves a favor by ending the conversation there.
Watch this video to get a perspective of how farmers are trying to educate others:
I listened to her concerns about pesticides and realized that she needed more explanation about simple chemistry, understanding of toxicity, and specificity of the crop protection product. I asked her about what she understood about toxicity which she knew nothing about so I proceeded to explain the concept called LD50. I then made comparisons with salt and glyphosate and explained it out to her while educating her about the need to control weeds.
Finally, my husband explained to her about the new pesticides that were targeted for the bugs over a quick kill type of mechanism. Needless to say, she was much less fearful after that discussion.
I realized that many consumers don’t quite understand pesticides either. Most of us will use Raid and see a bug die shortly after being sprayed. If you’re like my sister, you’ll douse that roach until you see it die in a pool of pesticide. That’s what many people may think about crop protection products not realizing the technology behind many of these products. They assume it’s quick kill and with a small amount, it means highly poisonous to anyone and everything, which is not the case.
Let’s not forget the economics of the users either. The frightened homeowner will gladly spray the $8 can of Raid to get a dead bug. There’s no livelihood dependent upon killing the bugs. The amount spent to kill a roach, flea, tick, or any isn’t going to affect their bottom line. For a farmer whose livelihood is dependent on a successful crop, he isn’t going to use up that $1000 crop protection item in one field but if the bugs can destroy it, you can bet he’ll use the least amount as possible to get the effect needed to maximize his profit.
I realized that developing world farmers simply don’t have the luxury to targeted crop protection products which leads them to multiple sprays during the course of a crop. When they only have access to quick acting sprays, they have to kill the bugs often or face damaged produce. While westerners are crying foul about pesticides, the poor people of the world are the ones contending with pesticide exposure and excessive use issues.
I truly believe that those communicating science and agriculture have to really assess who they are speaking to and promote an atmosphere of learning. There’s so much focus on having scientists speak up but the battle can only be won through learning. We aren’t just communicating science, we are promoting learning. Learning is how science communicators can change this conversation.
I dare those who are anti-GMO to learn the science behind biotechnology and farming. Watch these videos to grasp some key concepts if you can handle learning.