What Canadians don’t understand about farming—and what they need to

Opinion: A city resident-turned-farmer has seen firsthand how the understanding gap between farmers and consumers is growing, over issues like Roundup and more

Toban Dyck is a farmer and writer living in southern Manitoba.

My family’s farm began in 1880s with a sod house and an intrepid couple—the Banmans—willing to brave the unforgiving Canadian prairies. There’s a dimple near our apple trees where that first house was built.

Today, that same farm would be unrecognizable to the Banmans. It has grown from roughly 160 acres to nearly 1,200. This farm grows more crops than it did 120 years ago, producing edible beans, canola, soybeans, sunflowers, oats, and more. Electricity is now taken for granted. Our home is a house. Our tractors steer themselves. The movement of commodities across the globe is now quick and traceable. “Survival” is more a romantic notion or a good hashtag than it is a state of being around here.

And it’s run, at least in part, by a city boy. I returned to my family’s farm in 2012 after having been away from it for 12 years. I lived in cities during that period. I held city jobs, did city things and cultivated city relationships. I met my wife in the city. The farm is a great place, but so is the city—and I carry that unique perspective with me, as I run an operation that is out in the open and one that strives to feed a growing world.

It’s where I came to recognize a troubling disconnect between the world in which I was immersed and where its food comes from.

At some point in human history, civilization became proudly more sophisticated than merely labouring for sustenance. At a different point in the same history, that very labourer purchased a $750,000 harvester, acquired working knowledge of soil science and agronomy, developed a high-level understanding of technology, and learned to live off of modest profits skimmed from a high-risk business with phenomenally large cash flow. Median crop yields have increased significantly, and farmers are now able to do everything with increasing precision. It sometimes involves genetic modification, chemicals, and technology—poisonous words, for some, but science, to others—and it’s all allowed a vocation once characterized by toil, survival and calloused resolve to look different now. Progress is a controversial word, but I’m tempted to use it.

Consumers, too, are now taking interest. The once enviable, privileged position of being able to eat food without having to touch or even see the soil in which it was grown has been replaced with an attitude that is leading consumers to yearn for a connection to the dirt and demand of farmers an unprecedented level of transparency. But that trend—though positive—can read as a frantic attempt to restore a relationship that should never have ended.

But some are also pointing at farming with fury, alleging that it’s an industry run amok. The image of a 100-foot boom spraying chemicals over a crop of wheat will often stir the consumer to react irrationally, believing that such tableaux depict the gross mishandling of their food and the environment. Even though it’s actually cerebral and refined, the scale of modern agriculture appears to them overly large and seemingly brutish. And with 80 per cent of North Americans living in urban centres—a number that will only further grow—the gap in understanding threatens to only widen.

These two trajectories—the consumer and the farmer—have been left to evolve on their own, with little understanding and appreciation for each other. One side is yelling at the other in a language it doesn’t understand, and the other is yelling back in their own. But the two aren’t so different—and it’s critical we understand that.

Take, for example, the use of glyphosate, one of the most common pesticides in modern agriculture, which Monsanto made available to farmers and then the public as the herbicide Roundup. Chemicals promising to increase yields, handle pests and kill weeds come and go at an alarming rate, and while some pass the test of time, others fail. But Roundup’s effectiveness as a weed killer was unprecedented, especially since there are many chemicals much more powerful and toxic than Roundup that have been approved for agricultural use.  Farmers consider glyphosate to be a good news story, as it has reduced the total volume of pesticides and herbicides needed to grow Roundup-resistant crops.

But glyphosate has also become the major scapegoat for much of what the public deems wrong with agriculture today; even those who don’t know much about agriculture have most likely heard of Roundup.

When Roundup-resistant crop varieties hit the market and became available to farmers, a groundswell of people noticed and likened the genetic modification it took to develop such a plant to tampering—the hubris of playing God. But genetic modification—GMO stigmas aside—is in fact tantamount to variety development, which is a routine and ubiquitous procedure taking place as we speak in research facilities all over the world.

And it made news last week when San Francisco jurors ruled that Roundup gave groundskeeper Dewayne Johnson non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The decision requires Monsanto to pay Johnson $289 million in damages, a move regarded as a punitive action against the agricultural chemical industry as a whole. Many have called it fear-mongering, claiming the jurors did not make their decisions based on science. Since the case began, hundreds more cases mounting similar accusations against Monsanto have come forward.

While the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer controversially classified glyphosate as a “probable human carcinogen,” agencies like the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers it to have low toxicity when used at the recommended doses, and has said that there is strong evidence that it does not cause cancer in humans. Given the current climate surrounding the company, the onus is on Monsanto to prove incontrovertibly that it doesn’t cause cancer in humans, as it has claimed. But no one side or group has uttered the final word, as scientific research continues and evidence on both sides piles up. It is important to remember that despite the legal indictment, there is simply no firm, scientific yea or nay on this issue.

I am not an apologist for Monsanto. Nor am I a scientist capable of verifying claims on either side of this. I can only comment from a perspective in which I routinely see allegations the public rallies against the agricultural community as founded in fear and a stubborn resistance to facts.

We’ve become too used to slagging Roundup. There will always be things the agricultural community needs to fix. This specific debate is only damaging the relationship between you and me—something we both need to dedicate more time to rectifying.

Misunderstandings like these have left farmers scrambling to educate people on what it means to grow food. They make their farms open to the public. They speak at schools. And they find ways to get involved in public-facing educational campaigns. Public trust and social license are routinely cited as one of the industry’s top concerns. According to a public trust study conducted by the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity, only 29 percent of the 2,500 Canadians polled believed farmers were good stewards of the land.

But we want you to trust us. After all, decisions on any farm—including mine—are made by people: fallible, imperfect people doing their best with the information available. I want to run a farm that is sustainable, welcoming and profitable. And I want to run a farm that takes the concerns of the open-minded consumer seriously.

I grow genetically modified crops not because I’m a profit-hungry villain with no concern for human health nor the health of the planet—I grow them because the market has an appetite for soybeans, and there are varieties that have been genetically modified to grow well in my northern climate. Also, I grow them because there is nothing inherently unhealthy or irresponsible contained in the phrase “genetically modified.”

There’s lots you don’t know about what I do and how I make decisions. The science, mechanisms, and history that animates farming today is rich and complex. It requires people to read research reports, to keep updated on the latest growing conditions and the latest agronomy recommendations—and, at the very least, to take the time to visit a farm.

We’ve been vilified as profit-hungry and careless, belittled as simple, and written-off as stubborn. And some of us have reduced you to a few stereotypes, as well. Which is to say, many farmers assume those who live in the city aggressively believe these things and react accordingly, reducing them as arrogant and naïve. But I’ll be the first to say that I’m not a perfect farmer—that I could be better and I’d like to be better—and I hope to be met in the middle.

Righting this ship and correcting our two trajectories does not have a one-answer solution. It’ll take time. It’ll take a willingness on both sides to push past stereotypes and assumptions on the hope that a stable relationship between consumers and those who grow their food is something worth striving for.

What the Banmans did on their farm wasn’t scrutinized by the feral, unforgiving animal that is social media. And when the howling prairie winds were battering the side of their sod house, I’m certain contemplating the issue of public trust wasn’t paramount. The world was different then. The divide between those growing food and those eating food wasn’t as stark as it is today. Let’s work on bridging it, instead.


Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.