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Science-based decisions on farms -- in whose interest?

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Governments and farm organizations tell us over and over again that decisions made on our farms and by government regulatory agencies must be 'science-based.' Entwined with this adherence to 'science-based' decision-making is a demand that we accept that science is absolute and unbiased -- that it is never-changing and is never influenced by the interests of funders of the research.

Our understanding of our world and of our own farms, however, is ever-changing. Yesterday's knowledge leads us to new discoveries today, which will lead to new understandings tomorrow. Scientific knowledge can never be absolute since if we are open to learning it can constantly lead us to new discoveries and to new knowledge. As evidence we need only look at seed; from the time farmers started collecting and replanting seeds to grow food and feed, we have been actively adding to our collective, ever-changing knowledge of science and of plant breeding.

No scientific investigation can ever be truly unbiased. When we set out to discover something new or to deepen our understanding of how best to grow crops and/or raise livestock, we bring our knowledge and experience along with our personal values. Take the case of neonicotinoid insecticides and whether or not they should continue to be used as they are today. Some farm organizations, as well as lobby groups for chemical companies, say that any new regulations or restrictions on the use of neonicotinoid insecticides must be 'science-based.' They point to research studies showing that the use of neonicotinoid seed treatments increases yields of crops like corn and soybeans. That research, however, is funded by companies that produce and sell the insecticides. It serves their best interests to show that farmers benefit from using their products.

At the same time, other farm organizations and environmental groups point to studies that show neonicotinoids are responsible for the deaths of honey bees and other invertebrates. They view the loss of invertebrates, including bees, native pollinators and other beneficial insects as having a long term economic impact on farms as well as on our natural ecosystems.

As a society that makes 'science-based' decisions, we should have access to a variety of scientific studies when we make regulatory decisions. These studies should come from and receive funding from different sources -- not just from the private sector which can afford to fund research. Publicly funded scientists have provided that diversity for generations. In the interests of the public, they have researched the effects of scientific discoveries, such as insecticides on our water, our farms, our air and our terrestrial ecosystems.

On a daily basis our federal government touts the need to make 'science-based' decisions, while at the same time, it is quickly dismantling Canada's public research infrastructure and undermining the ability of our globally respected public scientists to do their research. World-renowned public libraries, like the Freshwater Institute library in Winnipeg, have been closed, with much of the invaluable materials kept there carted off to dumpsters, according to scientists who observed the closures. The destruction of this critical environmental and cultural baseline data, which was gathered in the public interest with public funding, represents a tremendous loss of knowledge. This 'lost' information could potentially have helped us better understand how our climate is changing, how agricultural practices are affecting our water and our natural ecosystems, and whether various industrial and agricultural chemicals are accumulating in our ecosystems.

Today, any public funds that are available for scientific research are being handed over to private industry to support commercialization of those discoveries. The May 7, 2013 issue of The Globe and Mail, which covered the change in mandate of the National Research Council, stated: "The National Research Council, which gave the country canola and the atomic clock, will now be taking its scientific cues from Canadian industry as part of a makeover of the country's flagship research labs." Where is the public interest when the government proclaims it is making 'science-based' decisions?

In December 2013, the federal government introduced Bill C-18, The Agricultural Growth Act, an omnibus bill with amendments to several agricultural acts. If the Bill is passed it will continue the government's trend of refusing to acknowledge the scientific base of plant-breeding knowledge built by farmers through millennia of selecting and saving seed. Bill C-18 will accelerate the government's trend of using science supplied by multinational chemical and seed companies when making 'science-based' decisions. And it continues the trend of dismantling and undermining public research by opening more gates for private plant breeding with the resulting profits accruing to multinational seed companies -- while closing the gates to farm saved seed and public breeding in the public interest.

Our environment, our farms and our food sovereignty are all under threat if we continue to give multinational agribusiness corporations control over the science used to make 'science-based' decisions on our farms and in regulations pertaining to health, agriculture and our environment.


Ann Slater farms near St. Marys, Ontario and is Vice President (Policy) of the National Farmers Union. 

This piece originally appeared on National Farmers Union and is reprinted with permission.

Photo: flickr/kaybee07

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