Stuart Smyth

We’re moving into the era of digital biology. New gene editing techniques allow us to edit the plant genome with great precision. We’ll soon be able to take gene editing to heights never imagined and create regional varieties that will change the face of plant breeding and agriculture more than ever. To succeed, we have to build new systems of educating people in order to encourage public acceptance and adoption of these new technologies.

We have a long way to go.

It’s part of my job to figure out ways of promoting science so the agriculture and food industries can better communicate with the public. We’re starting to try and get a better understanding of what Canadians understand about plant breeding. A recent initiative we’ve undertaken is an attempt to gather 500 surveys where we ask members of the public to answer some questions designed to see what they know about plant breeding.

The news is not good. People are very hesitant to even take part in it, because they feel they have no knowledge of how plant varieties are developed. We’ve had horrible success so far.

There’s almost a complete lack of any knowledge about plant breeding, food and nutrition in the high school curriculum, and this is the case across Canada. We must build whole new curriculums, ones that educate and enlighten young people about the role plant breeding and genetics have to play in feeding us.

Reaching a population of 35 million people is going to take awhile, but I believe that 2040 is a suitable goal for revamping our education system and getting through to the next generation. If we don’t move our education system in that direction, we’re doing a great disservice to the ability of young Canadians to thrive in the 21st century.

The resources are partially in place already. A curriculum should be developed that can be rolled out uniformly across the country. This starts by encouraging people working in the seed and agriculture industries to go to their organizations’ quarterly or annual meetings and introduce a motion to encourage provincial governments to develop a curriculum for genomic sciences that will talk about food, health and agriculture.

Doing this begins to put a bit of pressure provincial governments to promote education and awareness of genomic sciences. Being in the political sphere, they can’t ignore that once it starts coming from more organizations in agriculture. The incentive would be there for elected officials to begin to design a curriculum that’s pro-bioscience and pro-agriculture.

Groups like Farm & Food Care Canada (farmfoodcare.org/canada) are working hard to create this change, but everyone at the grassroots level needs to take part if we’re to usher in a new era for plant breeding and move our country forward.

—Smyth is Industry-Funded Research Chair in Agri-Food Innovation at the University of Saskatchewan

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