Smyth
Smyth

The misinformation battle

Whether it is hormones in beef and preservatives in bacon, or pesticides and genetically modified foods, Stuart Smyth wants to be part of the conversation.

"If someone's looking for information about genetically modified corn or genetically modified canola, so much of the information on the internet is provided without a lot of accuracy or factual details," he said. "(Readers) are influenced by Dr. Phil or Dr. Oz or Food Babe or this type of thing."

To counterbalance the misinformation, Smyth, a professor in the Department of Bioresource Policy, Business and Economics, and graduate student Savannah Gleim have launched Sustainable Agricultural Innovations and Food (SAIFood.ca), an online blog and Twitter feed to provide science-based information on agricultural biotechnology (agbiotech).

For Smyth, the gap in the public discourse can benefit from U of S expertise not only in agricultural science but also in trade, regulatory affairs and public opinion. As an agricultural economist, he has seen first hand how advances in agricultural science can be stifled by social science problems.

For example, while there is broad scientific consensus that GMOs are no more dangerous than other crops, public fears have driven governments to create onerous regulations and trade barriers that are smothering advances in agriculture worldwide.

"We've got technologies, right now, that could make a huge impact, but because consumer acceptance in Europe and in African countries isn't the same as it is in Canada and the United States, these technologies are not able to be adopted," he said.

While there are some efforts to provide science-based information to the public by individual scientists and organizations, Smyth said they are still few in number and are often drowned out by purveyors of misinformation who have already staked out their online turf.

"As an agriculture industry, we've been very slow to engage in social media, to provide a factual counterbalance for those people who are seeking information. People realize when they go to a social media site it may not be the best source of information, but they struggle to find a trusted source."

Smyth explained that incredible changes and advances have happened in plant breeding in the past two decades, and they have occurred much faster than advances in public scientific literacy. Combined with growth in communications technology and a vast gulf between rural and urban populations, these factors have created an enormous challenge, one with high stakes.

By not adopting new agbiotech in response to the Food and Agriculture Organization's challenge to figure out how to feed the world's nine billion people, "we're going to fail."
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