Harvesting knowledge

Manitoba researchers give farmers a voice in GM crop debate

Date published: 2008-02-25 1:04:16 PM

Government policy-makers concerned with genetically modified (GM) crops need to listen to the hard-won knowledge of Canadian farmers, say two University of Manitoba researchers. The future of the multi-billion dollar agricultural industry and, indeed, of rural Canada itself, may depend on it.

Stéphane McLachlan, professor of environment and geography, and PhD student Ian Mauro, recently produced an hour-long documentary called Seeds of Change, which details Canadian farmers’ experiences with GM crops.

“Farmers and farming communities are uniquely knowledgeable about the risks and benefits of genetically modified crops,” says McLachlan. “And there’s no way that Canada—or any other country—can develop intelligent, evidence-based laws and policies without bringing farmers’ expertise and recommendations into the debate.”

According to the researchers, urban Canadians tend to see the GM crops in black or white, as bad or good. But, the attitude of farmers is both holistic and pragmatic. They depend on GM crops to earn their livelihoods, but also see themselves as stewards of the land.
“Policy-makers often assess only the science-based risks and benefits of GM crops”, says Mauro. “Our work is exposing them to the social, economic and ecological impacts that farmers know so much about.”

McLachlan and Mauro have since expanded the work they did for the video to a Manitoba-wide survey of farmers’ attitudes toward GM crops, and are also in the midst of conducting a Canada-wide survey. In addition, some of McLachlan’s other graduate students are surveying western Canadian farmers on the impacts of “mad cow” disease (BSE).

Meanwhile, the researchers are keeping busy addressing farmers’ organizations, presenting their work to policy-makers, and fielding requests to supply copies of the Seeds of Change video worldwide.

Stéphane McLachlan and Ian Mauro’s research on farmers and GM crops is supported by SSHRC’s Standard Research Grants program and Doctoral Fellowships program.