Germany sets out to improve 40:1 odds against a positive crop protection story

Owen RobertsThink of an event covered by 5,000 journalists from 70 countries.

The Winter Olympics?

Superbowl XLVIII?

A Justin Bieber court appearance?

Think again – it’s actually an agriculture and food event, the biggest one in Europe, called Green Week. Now in its 79th year, this edition, staged every January, drew a record 410,000 people (mostly consumers) over nine days, and more international participants than ever.

It’s a great opportunity for the ag sector to try moving the needle on public opinion. Opposition in Europe, led by Germany, to biotechnology and other modern crop protection measures remains high.

And it shows, not just in anti-technology protests on the streets, but also in news coverage. A report from a pro-crop protection group called Industrieverband Agrar notes that the ratio of bad to good news media reports on plant protection is about 40:1.

The report, published in October and distributed at Green Week to members of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists, called out the ag sector for concentrating its efforts on quantifying the economic and environmental impact of crop protection in isolation.

Sure, crop protection preserves and increases yields. In fact, it’s conservatively estimated yields would drop by one-third without meaningful crop protection, a contention that everyone should keep in mind as we drive towards feeding more people on the planet.

But, the report asks, what about the social benefits of crop protection in Germany? How does it contribute to society’s goals?

Good point. One of the biggest knocks against biotechnology and crop protection is that its main beneficiaries have been farmers.

However, the report maintains that targeted, properly conducted crop protection on farm is actually good for society.

The authors know would-be readers are pretty particular about the way farmers use crop protection products. Germany is already on high alert, and has been for decades, about gene-altering technology. That makes citizens wary of North American-style crop protection and GMOs.

But when used properly, crop protection does society good, argues the report.

First, by boosting yields, it contributes to a country’s overall economic prosperity, not just that of farmers.

And in helping farmers fight bugs, weeds and disease, it permits more food to be grown on less land. “It helps save the globally scarce source of arable land or soil, through generating higher yields per unit of area,” says the report.

If little more land is needed to grow food, natural areas don’t have to be sacrificed for production, and biodiversity is preserved. This is a huge concern in Germany, where almost 82 million people are packed into a space about one-third the size of Ontario.

And finally, with more green spaces preserved and carbon sequestering maintained, less greenhouse gases end up being emitted into the atmosphere. That said, with climate change upon us and new pests emerging, crop protection helps hold the line while the plant world adapts.

All this certainly sounds like the position you’d expect pro-technology lobbyists to take. And I’ve heard their detractors argue against most of the statements made.

So have the German people, at a ratio of 40:1.

But the industry must keep trying different ways, like this society-targeted report perhaps, to make people understand plants grown for food are vulnerable and need help.

You know the comebacks: bees are vulnerable too, and need help. So does wildlife.  And so do people, if products are unsafe.

Can the industry prove it’s not the public’s enemy? It must, be it in Germany, Canada or wherever. Despite the skepticism, the media wants to hear industry’s story, beyond the catchy slogan and the perfect picture of the perfect field.

 

Owen Roberts

Owen Roberts directs research communications and teaches at the University of Guelph, and is president of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists. You can find him on Twitter as @theurbancowboy

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