Farmers need to speak up to combat the misinformation being circulated about the food they produce.
That was the advice offered by Camille Ryan, a professional affiliate with the College of Agriculture and Bioresources at the University of Saskatchewan, during a presentation in Red Deer on Tuesday.
The academic, author and public speaker described how “myth-makers” are creating and circulating false ideas about agricultural advances like genetically modified organisms — to the detriment of the world’s hungry.
“We need to tell our stories, because seven billion people and counting are really counting on us for this.”
Ryan described how the agri-food industry has harnessed innovation to boost production and make consumption easier.
“We spend 40 per cent less time preparing food now than we did few decades ago; we spend 81 per cent less time at cleanup, and we also have 25 per cent more (fruits and) veggies than we did in the 1970s.
“And most importantly, we’re living 30 years longer than we did 100 years ago.”
Yet traditional and social media are full of stories about the harmful effects of food — including such staples as red meat and wheat. Driving this trend is a segment of the population for whom food is aesthetic rather than functional, said Ryan.
This “food elite” can afford to demand that food be produced and prepared in a certain way, regardless of the fact safe alternatives exist that could benefit the less-fortunate.
“So essentially, we have 8.8 million people in the world, speaking for the 7.1 billion.”
Compounding the problem is a growing rural-urban divide that’s left many people — especially those who are younger — disconnected from the source of their food.
“They’ve really lost track of anything upstream from the grocery store.”
Powerful individuals and groups are driving food myths, said Ryan.
“More than 500 activist organizations are spending in excess of $2.5 billion every year in North America engaging in food-related campaigns.
“This is what I call the fear industry.”
They use graphic and compelling terms like “Frankenfood” and “factory farms,” which create strong images in consumers’ minds.
“They really are artful and very good at blending words and images together.”
Front and centre are celebrities, said Ryan.
“Pop culture icons have taken the place of nutritionists in the First World, and it seems like everybody is a food expert, except the food experts themselves.”
People are susceptible to food myths because of their tendency to be conspiratorial thinkers and conformists who accept what they hear from others. They often prefer anecdotes to scientific evidence when forming opinions, and are reluctant to accept information that conflicts with their ideas.
“Academic science is not sexy,” said Ryan.
Meanwhile, current methods of communication are contributing to the spread of food myths.
“The preferred and low-cost vehicle to transmit all of this misinformation is social media.”
Ryan was among a group of experts who spoke at a Red Deer Chamber of Commerce event highlighting agricultural innovation. It was organized by the Chamber’s agriculture and environmental policy committee.