Better Safe than Sorry? Not always.

A couple years back I remember my dad getting after the kids for running with a stick. “You’ll fall and impale yourselves. … blah blah blah.” Clearly the kids all ignored him and continued to run around with sticks. Later the same day, the kids hopped in the truck to head to the field and he says, “Don’t sit on the gun.” then proceeds to stick it under the seat and drive.

July flowering canola-pea field in Saskatchewan
July flowering canola-pea field in Saskatchewan

Our perception of risk is colored by experience – and our sense of control.

Popular food conversation focuses a lot on potential risk. Some of this is due to influence from the EU where regulations are based on the precautionary principle. I also think some of it is based on our familiarity with (or lack of) the hazard. In the case of modern farming we don’t understand the chemicals (go ahead and substitute hormones, drugs, breeding techniques etc. etc.) that are being used. We have no idea of the benefits they provide. We often don’t have the technical knowledge to evaluate the risk. And frankly it makes our brain hurt. So isn’t it better to just be safe rather than sorry?

No it isn’t.

Why?

Because hunger is against my values. The world population continues to grow and by 2050 it is estimated that we will need to produce 70% more food than we do today. And we will have to do it with a shrinking resource base. That feat is going to take every innovation, technology and advancement that we can come up with.

Canola-Pea Intercrop Flowering in July
Canola-Pea Intercrop Flowering in July

It isn’t all doom and gloom. I sleep well at night because I know we are up to the challenge. In the 1970’s canola was developed from rape seed using traditional breeding techniques. Canola was a major advancement as toxic components (erucic acid and glucosinolates) in rape were reduced to edible levels. Canola offered the world a heart healthy edible plant oil.

My grandfather grew less than 20 bushels/acres of rape seed in the 1970s. By the time my dad started farming yields had risen to 30 bushels/acre. Today, we target 40. How did we do this? By mining the soil and abusing the environment? No. By applying innovation, research, and technology in our business.

I wholeheartedly agree that innovation CANNOT come at the expense of food safety or environmental sustainability. It is my Industry’s responsibility to respect that and our government’s responsibility to ensure it. But innovations can – MAYBE EVEN HAVE TO – come at the expense of unbiased fear. We cannot afford to abandon developments like GMO, pesticides, or pharmaceuticals because your worry they might have a long-term health risk. Instead, we need to invest in research that investigates the short- and long-term safety advancements, share those findings in language that makes sense, and then build on the best developments we have. And then agriculture, science and society need to talk. Together we need to have a difficult but necessary conversation on how to ensure a future where all are fed and sleep easy at night.

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7 Comments Add yours

  1. Jennifer Brown says:

    Nice post Leigh. My question is: Who is investing in looking at the long term safety of innovations? As far as I can tell, it’s not supported by government, academic or industry research. I have far less confidence in our ability or willingness to look beyond the short term. I guess life is the ultimate experiment, and time will tell…

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    1. Hi Jennifer. I’ve been thinking of your comment and in lots of situations I expect you are correct. Tracking long term human health risks is very difficult and so often confounded by sociology-economic factors. Sometimes we get it right though. Not sure if you are familiar with Cheryl Waldner’s work but she used beef cows as sentinels to demonstrate a lack of harm on women’s reproductive health from oil flares. Often we need to think outside the box like this to find ways to investigate long term health effects. You do make a good point though. Inspired to learn more about human epi and see what they are doing.

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  2. Vinny Grette says:

    I think we’ll have to learn how to balance population growth with resources. We just can’t go on feeding more and more people forever…

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    1. To some extent that is true but I believe before we get to the point of insufficient resources we have huge opportunity in decreasing waste in the storage and distribution system and opportunity at the production end. A recent western producer article (https://twitter.com/lrosengren/status/561159530948468736) states the cost of Canada’s food waste is more than the GDP of the worlds 29 poorest nations combined. Food for thought. Thanks for you comment.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Vinny Grette says:

        Too true – I think the best before dates are partly to blame. I use them as a guide as to when to start examining the food to see just how it’s doing…

        Liked by 1 person

  3. abwallis says:

    Excellent post!

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    1. Thanks Anne. Some of your questions inspired this one 🙂

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