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'Agriscience Bus' takes teachers for a ride

(Tuesday, Nov. 25, 2003 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- Jane Garrison, Conscious Choice, 11/19/03: When the topic of genetically modified foods came up in the teachers' lounge one day, my friend Tom (not his real name) chimed in, "It's like when nectarines were made from peaches and plums." He said he had learned this on the "Agriscience Bus."

Having a working knowledge of genetically modified foods and knowing the fallacy of that analogy, I asked other previous Agriscience Bus participants about it. They all had the same impression, saying things like, "The course really opened my eyes to biotechnology" and "Some important biotech research is making big differences in improving the world's food supply." I asked whether any fellow course participants had brought up concerns over genetically modified organisms (GMOs). "Well, no," they answered, "it's hard to know what to ask when a geneticist is talking."

I took this as a sign that it was my time to take the Agriscience Bus tour.

Getting to the Kids via the Teachers

I first heard of "Teachers on an Agriscience Bus" about 12 years ago. Teachers in area school districts spend three days of their summer traveling to farms and other agriculture-related businesses west of Chicago.

The Agriscience Bus is an appealing three-day summer course offering guided tours of various agribusiness venues in a travel bus, comfortable overnight accommodations, generous meals, and the chance to hang out with colleagues. It's fully sponsored by local ag organizations and free to the teachers (with college and professional credit available for a tuition fee).

At our first meeting we were showered with stacks of class materials from every area ag-related organization I could imagine - from the Illinois Pork Producers Association to the DuPage County Farm Bureau. We received beautiful posters for our classrooms, lesson plan ideas, and free samples.

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Opening Message of the "Biotechnology Basics Activity Book"

Hi Kids,

This is an activity book for young people like you about biotechnology - a really neat topic. Why is it such a neat topic? Because biotechnology is helping to improve the health of the Earth and the people who call it home. In this book, you will take a closer look at biotechnology. You will see that biotechnology is being used to figure out how to: 1) grow more food; 2) help the environment; and 3) grow more nutritious food that improves our health. As you work through the puzzles in this book, you will learn more about biotechnology and all of the wonderful ways it can help people live better lives in a healthier world.

Have Fun!

- sponsored by the Council For Biotechnology Information, an industry trade group

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Included among these materials were copies of the AgMag and the Biotechnology Activity Book - provided by Monsanto and the Council for Biotechnology Information and geared to children. Nothing aggravates me more than the assumption that teachers of children are willing and blind messengers of anything put in front of them. Having said that, these materials include statements such as, "My teacher says biotechnology is helping scientists make edible medicine!" and "Seeds with special qualities could allow farmers to grow plants that are more nutritious, more resistant to pests, and more productive."

I also learned at the meeting that 641 area teachers have participated in the Agriscience Bus since the course tour started in 1991. Creation of this teacher "education" was based on a perceived need for agricultural literacy among young school students - and it was decided the best way to reach the students was through teachers.

Several highly regarded and dedicated area farmers had been involved in the development of this bus tour program. So, I asked myself, could this really be a "corporate conspiracy"? Good people had put it together. Nonetheless, literally, tens of thousands of kids were getting its message as a result of this teacher education program.

No Room for Dissent

Nearly all of the tour stops focused on "advanced technological aspects" of the agriculture industry - which meant biotechnology and factory farms.

Still, it didn't come as a surprise to me that 80 percent of the grain fed to most hogs is genetically modified or that the mass production of meat means that a sow typically produces five artificially inseminated litters of 8-11 pigs before her productivity declines.

Neither was I surprised that the farmers I met are thoughtful and intelligent people of high character who possess a sense of responsibility for the population as well as for the environment. I already knew these things.

The surprise came on the bus. Our instructor was a friendly guy who directs our county's farm bureau. His blend of agriculture and political science experience made him perfect for his job. Our tight schedule didn't allow much time for group discussions so he suggested that we talk together on the bus. Yet when I indicated that I would like to discuss the controversy over genetically modified crops, the friendliness switched to off. He snapped, "Not on this bus. Not while we're paying for it. That's not on the syllabus."

So much for post-graduate course work that engages in lively debate! It was clear that the only way we teachers were going to hear the arguments against GMOs was if they were discussed "off the bus." Fat chance. Monsanto was our next stop.

Our tour of Monsanto's research facility began with a "wagon ride" out to the test soybean fields. Our guide, a charming Brazilian scientist sang the praises of "Roundup Ready" soybeans and Bt (GMO) corn. "Farmers can now spend their summers in Florida instead of in their fields pulling weeds," he happily exclaimed.

When I asked how non-GMO farmers keep their fields from being contaminated by GMO pollen, his explanation stressed the technology's approval by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency (how could the government be wrong?!). He admitted that 1-2 percent of pollen could conceivably make its way to neighboring plants - but that planting 15 days after the GMO crops are planted helps alleviate the chances of contamination.

A more formal presentation followed, presented by a plaid shirt-clad geneticist who attempted to approach the GMO controversy head-on, relating its nickname of "Frankenfood" with a chuckle and pointing out that the European refusal to legalize GMOs was purely political and economic manipulation intended to drive down U.S. GMO prices. One teacher asked about the monarch butterfly research and he discredited it as "poorly planned and irrelevant...that test did not take into account the timing of monarchs' milkweed diet with the GMO plants' pollen dispersal." Another teacher brought up the StarLink/Taco Bell issue, and his explanation emphasized the "very small" probability that GMO corn could cause a problem.

"So what's the big controversy?" queried one teacher.

"People don't like the idea that there are food products that have DNA from another organism," he replied. "There is no concern that human bodies cannot break down the Bt [GMOS]."

The polite side of me was saying, "Stay in your seat, Jane." But the "know thyself" side made me stand up. I was aware of the lack of research pointing to human safety and, in a bold move, I piped up to make this point citing Monsanto's "Right to Know" safety sign, prominently displayed on the wall of the pole barn in which we were seated.

Our speaker acknowledged that long-term effects on health and the environment are not known and that Monsanto directs millions of dollars toward lobbying the Food and Drug Administration to prevent the labeling of GMO foods. I told him that it's unconscionable that the public is serving as guinea pigs in this giant human experiment, and we have no idea how GMOs will effect us, our children, our grandchildren, and ecosystems.

There was no response from our speaker; there was no response from the audience.

Later, a teacher quietly suggested that I shop at Whole Foods Market. Another teacher said she was interested in more information about GMOs and a friend teasingly called me "gutsy." My bus partner, a young social sciences teacher of like mind, quietly thanked me. On the other hand, our bus guide remarked that I didn't have to "put down" our host; that "we do the best we can with what we have." And later, in a course evaluation a participant wrote, "Some teachers are clueless as to proper behavior."

However, in that same evaluation, someone suggested a trip to an organic farm and another pointed out the importance of discussing the ethics of biotechnology, neither of which had been addressed during the tour.

The last stop of that day was an award-winning feedlot farm, on which hundreds of cattle are fed until ready for market. This business - run by a respected, close-knit local family - is state-of-the-art with everything from Global Positioning Satellite on its tractors to ultrasound testing for predicting optimum cattle size for quality cuts of meat.

The impact of consumer demand was glaringly clear on this factory farm - Holstein cattle, known as dairy cattle, are now raised and butchered for beef because Wal-Mart customers are scrambling for the unique shape of their rib eyes. The farm grows a field of non-GMO soybeans to sell to the European market. "This is a capitalist country and we're in the business of making food for people," explained one of the farmers. "If consumers demand something - and we can provide it safely and legally while making a profit - we'll produce it."

The Media Package

The tour served to show that the power of the biotech industry and industry giants such as Monsanto is far-reaching - and that local Chicago media play a big part in that. For instance, one of our tour stops was at WGN-AM, known for its local color and syndicated farm reports and owned by the Chicago Tribune Company. On our last day, we met the two gentlemen with memorable voices who present WGN's daily farm reports, broadcast nationwide. A teacher asked, "What are some of the most controversial issues facing agriculture today?"

"Some amazing and wonderful things are being done with biotechnology," one of the reporters replied. "Most of the protests are emotion-based; you don't hear much concern in the U.S. In fact, the most recent protest had only about 600 people. That's compared to how many million U.S. citizens who have no problem with it?"

Is there a chance that Monsanto is a WGN client?

One of the stated objectives of the three-day tour is "to provide relevant teaching and curriculum materials that be integrated into various subject matter disciplines."

It could be a tough row to hoe if a teacher comes away not wanting to integrate the ideas espoused during the Agriscience Bus tour. Why? Participating teachers must make this commitment: "ALL staff will be required to develop curriculum materials using information obtained from the trip program."

Jane Garrison, mother of two, teaches fourth grade in a west Chicago suburb.