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The Biggest Threat Facing Modern Agriculture: Misinformation

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Hi, my name is Patrick Beaujot, and I’m honoured to be speaking at the 6th World Congress on Conservation Agriculture. I’d like to speak to you this evening about what I see as a disturbing trend that is currently having a tremendous impact on the way the public looks at Modern Agriculture and food production. First though, a brief introduction.

I was born and raised on a grain farm in South-East Saskatchewan. My parents taught me many things, but fundamentally, I learned a love for the land, a love for farming, and how to enjoy hard work. Farming was booming in the 1970s during my formative years, much like it is today. I started studying at the U of S College of Agriculture in 1977 with the intent of becoming a farmer/seed grower. During this time about half of Saskatchewan farm land was in summer fallow, and soil erosion in the area was at its peak, a truly alarming result of the rise of intensive farming practices of the age. The signs were present for another impending “dust bowl” like that of the 1930s, and concern was growing among farmers that something had to be done to reverse it, and fast.

My education could not have come at a better time, as I was fortunate to be taught by a man named Dr. Don Rennie who ingrained in his students the damages that tillage can do. He had developed the solutions we needed for the prairies. If we continuous-cropped, left stubble standing to catch snow, and direct seeded with fertilizer in spring we could stop the erosion that threatened our livelihoods and build the soil back up. Another of my major influences was a professor by the name of (James) Les Henry. He taught me many things, including the idea that I should always look at the practical aspect of Agriculture, and make sure it works for the farmer. These two concepts were critical to my understanding of the future of Agriculture, and influential in the steps that have brought me to where I am today.

I left school with a passion for soil conservation, and in 1992 I was co-founder of Seed Hawk, a company that developed an independent depth control opener that would seed, band fertilizer and pack in one simple design. This technology revolutionized the industry and made it possible for farmers to practice no-till agriculture in wet, dry and marginal conditions, which enabled growers to abandon the tillage practices that were destroying their soils.

The opener has evolved over the last twenty or so years but the principle remains the same. The seed knife buries the fertilizer before placing the seed for consistent separation. We’re all about superior shallow seeding, depth accuracy and side banding fertilizer. The result is quick, uniform germination, even packing and consistent performance. Quick, even germination comes from seed and fertilizer placement along with a furrow effect — this gives seed the best access to fertilizer, moisture and sunlight, speeding emergence and crop development. This system has proven sustainable across the Canadian Prairies. The knife opener has proven to be much better than the disc opener more commonly used for no-till in the U.S. where hair pinning and lack of soil warming has resulted in many farmers switching back to tillage after trying disc openers in zero till with little success. The threat of soil degradation in Western Canada is gone thanks to a change in thinking and the development of technology that responds to the needs of conservation-minded growers. Most of the Canadian Prairies are farmed under no-till practices today, and the practice is growing around the world, but we have a new threat now that I am passionate about sharing with you.

I believe the biggest threat to Modern Agriculture today isn’t tillage; it is misinformation, largely spread by the organic industry. The organic industry has gone overboard spreading misinformation and fear in order to serve their own interests and sell more product. The movement has become like a religion where Monsanto and other seed giants are the devil. These organizations are well funded and very financially motivated to continue spreading fear to a public who are largely uneducated about the true science of agriculture. This lack of trust of science is a strong and growing force and is spreading worldwide. Western European farmers are already handcuffed by not being able to use GMO crops while they watch North American farmers see significant yield increases and other benefits from this technology. The fear is spreading to North America and elsewhere, where lobbying has already influenced some states in the US to ban or restrict the use of GMO crops due to public pressure. In Canada, there has been a 300% increase in the demand for organic products since 2006, and the industry has ballooned to $3.5 million in that time, making Canada’s organic industry the fourth largest in the world. In a study conducted by the Canadian Organic Trade Association – “over ½ of Canadians feel organic farming is better for a healthy environment.” This is just a taste of the kind of sentiments that are out there, and the damage they can do is incredible.

The power of the majority rules in our society, and the success of this campaign has led to a huge mistrust of Agriculture and the science behind it. Every day you read about another case of doubt being cast among populations, and their governments are beginning to respond to their demands. The reaction of the Agriculture so far? Not much, as far as I’m concerned. There is growing fear among growers and others in the farming community over what this public pressure might mean to them, their livelihoods and the land they love. Organic production cannot compete with conservation farming practices, let alone conventional ones in feeding hungry mouths all over the planet.

The good news is that there are lots of organizations and individuals that are working on this problem, tackling the smear campaign head on. Ag More Than Ever, Dr. Cami Ryan, as well as bloggers and speakers around the world are stepping up to speak out on behalf of the Agriculture to correct the misinformation, to assert the facts and the science behind conservation agricultural practices, and to reassure the public that we are all working together to improve our methods every day to allow us to produce the best, most nutritious and safest food to feed everyone. Unfortunately, a lot of these efforts aren’t reaching the public, and are merely preaching to the choir. I think we need to be more aggressive to win back public trust and support.

It has become so mainstream to cut down Modern Agriculture, the media does it without even thinking. I think a non-profit organization should be set up that people and other organizations can contribute to. It should fund an aggressive ad campaign to combat the organic industry head on, on a large scale. It wouldn’t be hard to find dedicated folks to get this started, and to support it. This organization would also act like a watch dog, keeping abreast of any misleading media or false advertising, ensuring that it is dealt with swiftly and accurately by focussing on the science. The world depends on developed countries like Canada to keep advancing Agriculture to feed the world. If we just let the organics keep discrediting us we will lose research funding, lose valuable tools and most importantly, we will lose the trust and support of the public who rely on us. It is up to us to get the truth out there.

I am fortunate to have been a part of developing NOTILLville.com, which is a place where the no-till community can meet online to share ideas and experiences with local and international perspectives on no-till seeding. I blog for this site, along with my respected colleagues No-Till Bill Crabtree and Scott Day, who offer their insights and expertise on many issues in conservation agriculture. I hope you will join us to comment and discuss these important issues, and follow myself on Twitter @PatrickBeaujot and @NOTILLville. Thank you for your time.

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