Perception can become reality — which is why we need to understand our critics

Glyphosate foe Don Huber has become a darling of critics of modern agriculture, 
even though he’s never offered proof for his accusations

Netflix got me hooked on the popular television show “Mad Men.” To be honest, it was kind of boring for the most part, but I ended up watching the first six seasons in a month or so. Being a gen-Xer, it was intriguing to get a glimpse into a time when I was not alive. Did everyone really smoke that much? Was it really OK to drink at work???

I also loved watching the ad men come up with their creative spin to market whatever product their clients were selling, and how Don Draper could captivate his clients with clean, articulate and empowering pitches.

We in the ag industry could learn from this fictional ad man. Good science needs to be marketed creatively and should be compelling. After all, what’s the point of doing all the good work when no one buys what you’re offering?

And sadly, in agriculture there are many examples of how public perception and reality are as far apart as our coast lines. Take glyphosate. This magical herbicide has single-handedly revolutionized cropping systems around the world. It’s the most used and studied herbicide on the planet with the majority of results strongly demonstrating its safety and benefit.

So why then are people lining up to hear Don Huber speak?

Huber is a retired plant pathologist from Purdue University with a long and distinguished CV who became an overnight sensation three years ago. That’s when he sent a letter to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack claiming he had evidence of a newly discovered “micro-fungal-like organism” linked to glyphosate. He claimed — although he’s never provided any studies or even any data — this mysterious organism is causing an increase in plant diseases and abortions and infertility in livestock.

As a salesman, Huber is nothing like Don Draper. His presentations are overloaded with confusing data to the point where my brain wants to explode. His interviews and online videos remind me of the drab and deadly dull school teacher in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”

And still people want to hear him — despite an increasingly vocal group of scientists dedicated to debunking his message and “bad science.”

Somehow Huber’s sales pitch is working. Or maybe it’s because our’s isn’t.

In the “Mad Men” era, medical doctors actually promoted smoking in advertising. Maybe that’s when the public started becoming skeptical about men of science. Whatever the reason, we need to understand why Huber’s message finds such a receptive audience, and why so many people mistrust the agricultural sector.

That’s why I invited Don Huber to come to Lethbridge and speak at the Farming Smarter conference in December. When a winter storm kept him and several other speakers from attending, I polled the crowd on which ones they most wanted us to bring back at a later date. Eighty per cent wanted to hear Huber.

So I invited him back for our AGM on Feb. 27. Hopefully, Mother Nature allows him to come this time. I’m all for hearing what he has to say and I’m sure I can learn something from him. I’ve already had discussions with some plant pathologists about maybe doing some field studies to see if there are any disease implications from glyphosate use.

We don’t want bad science to blunt our scientific curiosity. After all, we now have glyphosate-tolerant kochia in southern Alberta despite being told it could never happen. So it pays to keep an open mind.

And of course, I’d like to see for myself if Don Draper and Don Huber share anything more than the same first name.

The truth is farmers really care about glyphosate and are afraid what may happen if they lose it. But knowledge is our strongest weapon.

By thinking critically, and studying both the science and those who crusade against it, maybe we can close some of the gap between perception and reality.

Ken Coles can be reached at[email protected]. For more information on Farming Smarter events and its research, see www.farmingsmarter.com

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