Overcoming “flatlander” syndrome

By Joseph L. Murphy

How do you overcome flatlanders? Those people who shrug-off science and embrace misinformation. The people who thought you would sail off the edge of the world until explorers armed with science proved the earth was round.

Wade Cowan, President of the American Soybean Association, and Sonia Tomassone,a trade consultant for the Paraguayan Grains and Oilseed Exporters Association, discuss biotechnology issues last week at an ISGA meeting in Beijing, China. (Photo: Joseph L. Murphy)

Wade Cowan, President of the American Soybean Association, and Sonia Tomassone,a trade consultant for the Paraguayan Grains and Oilseed Exporters Association, discuss biotechnology issues last week at an ISGA meeting in Beijing, China. (Photo: Joseph L. Murphy)

That was a question Wade Cowan asked a group of farmers and industry leaders at the end of a three-day International Soy Growers Alliance (ISGA) meeting in China.

It was one of many questions asked during the three-day visit in China as leaders from Brazil, Argentina, United States and Paraguay talked with high level Chinese government and business agencies in hopes of them accepting new biotechnology seeds and farming practices.

Finding an answer to that questions and others seemed simple. Use communications from a unified group of countries to promote the understanding of biotech crops and food safety. But as many representatives of ISGA found, China is setting the pace, and in some cases, making the rules on approving biotech events. That pace and the undefined rules for biotech approvals are causing financial and social shockwaves around the globe according to a White Paper that was released in conjunction with the ISGA visit.

“It matters to all of us that we have freedom to operate and that we have the ability to use the tools in the toolbox,” Cowan said. “When they say it could take seven years to get a trait we can use in our fields, they have effectively taken away 25 percent of your productive life as a farmer. You couldn’t tell a wage worker in town that you would take away seven years of their productivity and knock them down. Science is science and once it is approved it needs to be approved everywhere.”

Through meetings with high-ranking industry, education and government leaders in China, members of ISGA presented information in a unified front to try and streamline the approval process. But to do that they found they have to overcome the fears of genetically modified crops when it comes to the Chinese people.

Wu Kongming, the Vice President of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, meets with ISGA members last week in Beijing, China. The ISGA promoted GM technology as a key component in addressing global food security issues during the meeting. (Photo: Joseph L. Murphy)

Wu Kongming, the Vice President of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, meets with ISGA members last week in Beijing, China. The ISGA promoted GM technology as a key component in addressing global food security issues during the meeting. (Photo: Joseph L. Murphy)

 

“I understand the conflict lies in the fast pace of research and development of GM events and the delay in approvals in consumer countries like China,” Chen Xuecong, the vice general manager of Sino Grain, said through an English translator. “From the perspective of the importers they have their own process and their consideration is more focused on food safety and the safety of biology. I believe that communications to the public is very important and it is also important for you to provide massive proof to show biotechnology is safe and that it will provide safe food for consuming country.”

That answer, in one form or another, was repeated to each group of ISGA international farmers as they met with the Chinese organizations. Organizations like the Department of American and Oceanian Affairs Ministry of Commerce, the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences and the Department of Supervision on Animal and Plant Quarantine.

“It would be a significant improvement if all the ISGA countries together with Chinese industry could work together to create a pilot program for soybeans,” Jim Sutter told Chen Xuecong and others gathered at a meeting.

Chen Xuecong discusses biotechnology issues with members of the ISGA during a recent visit to Sino Grain in Beijing, China. (Photo: Joseph L. Murphy)

Chen Xuecong discusses biotechnology issues with members of the ISGA during a recent visit to Sino Grain in Beijing, China. (Photo: Joseph L. Murphy)

 

The ISGA, formed 10 years ago from countries representing 95 percent of the world’s soybean production, has been working together in a united front to prod European and Asian countries to approve biotechnology events in an efficient manner. The ISGA representatives that participated in the mission to China know their message is being received, but the actions of the Chinese government are still undefined.

“This week everyone was talking the same language and for me it was impressive,” Sonia Tomassone, a trade consultant for the Paraguayan Grains and Oilseed Exporters Association, said. “We need to present a single paper to everyone we met with to show we have one voice on this issue.”

Originally published for the Iowa Soybean Association. Find more great stories at: www.iasoybeans.com/news

Grist in the Midwest

In a small office on the main street of Colfax Nathanael Johnson unassumingly conducted an interview. He listened intently as a veterinarian talked about antibiotic use, GMOs and even her approaching due date for her twins.

Nathanael Johnson (left) visits with Dave Strutterhs at his farm near Collins, Iowa.

Nathanael Johnson (left) visits with Dave Strutterhs at his farm near Collins, Iowa.

Johnson, a self-acclaimed liberal doesn’t hide the fact that he was raised by parents embracing the 60’s values of hippies that populated the streets of San Francisco at the intersection of Haight and Ashbury during the summer of love. He attended the University of Berkeley and enjoys riding his custom bike on the winding streets of San Francisco. And most recently he has been tagged as an “agvocate” by reporting the facts about GMOs to a readership that prefers news about climate change, mass transit and subsistence farming.

Grist.org an online news site positions itself as a source of intelligent, irreverent environmental news and commentary that has been providing thought provoking articles for readers since 1999. Their goal is to get people talking, thinking and taking action and they proclaim that they are making lemonade out of looming climate apocalypse. There is no shortage of humor on the site mixed with the dire news of the day.

Event attendees visit with Nathanael Johnson about his reporting on GMOs.

Event attendees visit with Nathanael Johnson about his reporting on GMOs.

The answer, it turns out, can be found by simply asking him. And that is what a crowd of 150 people did during a question and answer event at the FFA Enrichment center in Ankeny. During the event he answered questions, talked about his stories and shed light on his approach to social concerns related to agriculture. You can read more about that event here: GMOs: “What’s the big deal?”

This week Johnson was also in Iowa to continue his work on a story about new guidelines by the USDA on the use of antibiotics in livestock. It will be another story in a body of work that has straddled the rails of environmentalism and agriculture that in the past has brought two ideologically different groups together, at least for the moment, on the unlikely subject of GMOs.

Johnson recently completed a six month discovery of GMOs that was celebrated by some in the Ag industry as a win for those that have always believed in GMO crops. Environmentalists and foodies stomached the conclusion too because of his thorough explanations along the way. Just a month into his duties as a food writer he was asked to tackle the issue of GMO’s. As his research and interviews took him deeper and deeper into the subject his stories angered people on both sides of the issue. He quickly found that the messages surrounding GMO’s were supercharged no matter what stance is taken.

I had the opportunity to visit with Johnson as I drove him to the vet clinic in Colfax and later to Dave Struthers pig farm near Collins. I found in talking to him that just because his ideology is rooted in environmentalism his job as a journalist searching for facts and reporting them without bias has led him to report on these issues as accurately as he can. Sometimes even in the face of his readership at Grist. I also found, as a journalist myself, that I can give credit to his editors and other management at Grist for allowing Johnson to explore these issues and report on them regardless of the findings with only accuracy as a guide.

Will his future stories be as accepted by those in the agricultural industry? My guess is probably not. However, after meeting and visiting with him during our drive through the Iowa countryside, I know that the stories will be constructed on facts. In doing so, Johnson will continue to build credibility – and bridges on the all-important topics of food and food safety.