Farm lessons learned from Bill Murray and a large rodent

By Blake Hurst

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



Those of us who spend time in the fencerows between the farm and the public feel like the Bill Murray character in the classic movie, Groundhog Day. Every day we wake up in the same situation as the day before, talking about the same issues, listening to identical arguments.

It should be a simple matter to explain why farmers with the herculean task of producing the food for more than 300 million meals three times a day use the technologies and practices they do. But it hasn't worked out that way.  As we are reminded virtually every news cycle, today's agriculture is a foreign and frightening place to the consumers who eat what farmers produce, but don't trust the producers of that food any further than they could throw a grass-fed steer. 

For those of you who don't remember the movie, Bill Murray plays a weatherman sent to cover the annual appearance of Punxsutawney Phil.  He's unhappy about the assignment, and disdainful of the locals. Day after day, he awakes in the same place, and each day is exactly the same as the last. Writer Jonah Goldberg discusses the movie in a famous 2005 article for the magazine National Review, which you can find here:  A Movie for All Time.

Lets Talk Food

The latest version of farming's Groundhog Day occurred a few weeks ago, when a United Nations agency announced that glyphosate might cause cancer.  There was lots of news coverage because glyphosate- an active ingredient in the popular Roundup® herbicide - was developed by Monsanto and is used to kill weeds in the production of genetically-modified crops and in other ways. The United Nations declaration was based on no new studies and is contradicted by any number of other health agencies worldwide. As a matter of fact, it isn't clear what, exactly, the new classification means.

The science is not in question.  The EPA has concluded that glyphosate does not cause cancer.  No government agency on either side of the Atlantic has found evidence of cancer from the use of Roundup®.  Monsanto, in their public statement about the finding, says that the most relevant data was not included in the United Nations report, and there is no link between glyphosate and cancer when the full data set is included.    

Earlier, the same organization found that coffee, hair salons, and shift work are all probable causes of cancer: shift workers because their day night schedules are interrupted; hair dressers because of the chemicals used in that profession; and coffee, because, well, because people really like coffee - so it must be bad.  This, on the heels of the latest U.S. dietary guidelines, which gave coffee a relatively clean bill of health.  It's hard to know which way to turn, although I wouldn't recommend shorting Starbucks stock.

There were other common pesticides included on the list, but without the frisson that comes with a Monsanto connection, those results received no press coverage. Farming may bad, but farming with any product marketed by those scofflaws in St. Louis gets public-enemy-number-one level notoriety. The people who care about these things reacted as you might expect, with press releases, studies cited, and shrillness on Facebook and other social media.  European regulators are tut-tutting, and no doubt consumers there are feeling justified. Farming is always on the defensive. When the alarm goes off, we're trapped in a never ending cycle of sameness, just like Bill Murray.

Which reminds me of the old cartoon about jellybeans. In the first panel, a group of scientists accuse jellybeans of causing acne. A test is done, and with a 95% confidence level, jellybeans are declared safe for teenage diets.  Ah, no, say the scientists.  It's only certain jellybeans that are pimple causing. Green, yellow, red, mauve, black, brown - they are all tested individually.  And sure enough, after enough tests are done, yellow jellybeans are correlated with skin eruptions.  The joke is, of course, the 95 percent confidence level. 

If enough tests are done on any population, there will be outliers.  Critics of agricultural technology are always calling for more tests.  More tests can lead to more trustworthy results, but only if the people tweeting about those the tests are honest about the statistical significance of those tests. Science can never answer questions with a definitive “yes” or “no.”  We all operate on the day-to-day equivalent of confidence levels, dealing with risk in common sense ways. However, it seems that the public no longer trusts farmers to operate with a sensible attitude toward risk.  A large part of the population, or at least a very noisy part, asks for guarantees from agriculture that we can never provide.

At least one prominent farmer and TV host has decided to throw in the towel.  He's not convinced that the benefits of genetic modification are worth the extra cost for seed and the adverse publicity accorded farming because of their use.  According to him, public perception of genetic modification is moving against us, and we ought to concede. With decades of repetitious criticism acting as a virtual Groundhog Day, many of the rest of us in farming understand his frustration.

Of course, much the same argument could be made about the controversy over childhood vaccinations. I'm not claiming that Roundup Ready soybeans provide the same benefits to society as the measles or polio vaccination.  But genetically modified crops offer huge benefits to both farmers and consumers. Agriculture has to win this battle, because the results here are a bellwether in the vaccine argument, as well as the next battle over the use of other new and sometimes not so new technologies.

At the end of his first Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, Murray attempts to leave, and is turned back at the edge of town by a state trooper, who explains that the choice is to stay in town, or freeze to death in the middle of a blizzard.  “Which is it?” asks the policeman.  Murray replies: “I'm thinking, I'm thinking.”  The next morning, as the clock radio awakens him, the announcer says: “It's Groundhog Day.” Slowly, Murray realizes that there is no tomorrow, only today, and this day is exactly like the one before.  He finally escapes Groundhog Day after days of resigned and dogged perseverance.  Each day, he makes better decisions, learning to accept his lot with a program of self-improvement and involvement with those around him. 

Groundhog Day is not only a very funny movie, but a fable with lessons for us all.  Farmers can get past their version of Groundhog Day only by continuing to improve their practices......and explaining the logic and benefits of how they produce to regulators, agitators, consumers and the media. Patience and integrity are only the first of the lessons we should learn from Bill Murray and a very large rodent.

About the author: Blake Hurst is a third-generation farmer and president of the Missouri Farm Bureau board of directors.

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