Classrooms across the country were getting some special visitors in March as volunteers for the non-profit organization Ag in the Classroom Canada (AITC-C) did their bit to promote Ag Literacy Month.
In this province, those volunteers included Manitoba Agriculture Minister Ralph Eichler and fellow cabinet minister and Portage la Prairie farmer Ian Wishart, who took turns reading to students in a Winnipeg school.
“Most students are three generations removed from the farm, so it’s important they learn where their food comes from. Canadian Agriculture Literacy Month puts a face to agriculture and shows students how connected we are to agriculture every day,” Agriculture in the Classroom-Manitoba executive director Sue Clayton said in a release.
It all seems innocent enough. Who better qualified than people on the front lines of food production to explain it to young people? The effort involves hundreds of volunteers from across Canada who take time out of their daily schedules to engage with students.
But nothing is simple or straightforward in this era of polarized views about just about everything, including food.
A network of organizations opposed to the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food production took AITC-C to task earlier this month for a presentation on how biotechnology — in this case, a genetically modified apple that doesn’t turn brown when its flesh is exposed to air — can be used to reduce food waste.
The webinar was delivered by an employee of the company behind the Arctic apple, which has been approved by federal regulators, but is not yet commercialized in Canada.
The private sector sponsors and volunteers for AITC-C wouldn’t have a problem with this. They see this type of genetic engineering as an asset for agriculture. It does, after all, have regulatory approval and has been used in food production for more than 20 years.
However, the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, Kids Right to Know, the Council of Canadians and Earth Action PEI see something more nefarious, calling the webinar a “blatant corporate product promotion.”
“It’s certainly not a neutral presentation of genetic modification to students,” Lucy Sharratt of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network said in a release. That may be so, but it’s unlikely students would hear a neutral view of GMOs from these groups either.
So how do we talk about food production in a way that informs the discussion without influencing opinions? When it comes to controversial issues, what one group sees as education, another views as propaganda.
There has been no evidence found to date that shows eating foods produced from GMOs is hazardous to our health. But the technology raises other questions about the structure of our food supply worthy of discussion. Likewise, it is disingenuous to suggest any particular technology is necessary to feed the world. What will be needed is ongoing innovation, which can take many forms.
That’s the conundrum facing modern agriculture in an era when critical thinking has taken a back seat to fear and mistrust. Citizens who now have little direct connection with food production are bombarded with information — some of it good, some of it misleading — provided by individuals and organizations that promote their views with religious fervour.
Many don’t know where to start when it comes to forming their own opinion on complex issues, the discussion around which should be more about understanding the trade-offs than about picking a side.
Ag in the Classroom was formed to help fill that void. While it is officially agnostic on policy and issues, it’s fair to say its volunteers bring a perspective on agriculture that is predominantly based on conventional wisdom. Its programs are delivered by farmers and industry representatives who are passionate about what they do and how they do it.
Are some of those perspectives and the underlying assumptions then debatable? Absolutely. As adults, many of us have come to appreciate that some of the things we ‘learned’ in school are open to interpretation. Who knows how future grocery buyers will look back on what they learned about agriculture in school? At least they learned something about it.
At its core, education isn’t, nor should it be, about providing the right answers. Its role is to equip students with the capacity to ask the right questions.
That starts with a basic understanding of how things work. It’s hard to agree or disagree if you don’t know what you are talking about.