GENET archive


9-Misc: Report on U.S. biotech PR for teachers and school children

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TITLE:  "Agriscience Bus" Takes Teachers For a Ride
SOURCE: Conscious Choice, USA, by Jane Garrison
DATE:   Nov 2003

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"Agriscience Bus" Takes Teachers For a Ride

[still on tour:]

Big business interests are pushed in a program to teach educators about
"agriculture"...their agriculture.

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

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.

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

Opening Message of the "Biotechnology Basics Activity Book" (shown on our

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

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

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]." (See sidebar story for another view.)

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

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

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.

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

The Reluctant Activist: Teacher Jane Garrison

A couple of weeks before the completion of this cover story, Jane
Garrison wrote me, "I'm getting cold feet about this project! I'm
committed to the article being printed but I'm nervous about its
reception among colleagues in my own school district."

To make her more comfortable we agreed to exclude references to her
suburban Chicago school district or people and organizations she works
closely with. "I don't want to demean or jeopardize the integrity of it
[the Agriscience Bus course] or some of the very good people behind it,"
Garrison remarks. "I don't mind being considered 'outspoken' or
'activist,' I just don't want to be considered sneaky, untrustworthy, or
a jerk!"

Hardly. In working with Jane Garrison to tell her story, I found her to
be a woman of integrity, sincerity, and "heart" -- the kind of person
you'd want teaching your kids. Put yourself in her shoes, and imagine
standing up against an industry-backed campaign -- deeply imbedded in the
culture, I might add -- that's bent on convincing you of something you
know carries untruths.

Garrison is not a professional writer but as she told me, "the
[Agriscience Bus] experience motivated me to write...I've emphasized what
I see as the problem areas, particularly with regard to manipulating what
teachers are exposed to about biotech."

Rebecca Ephraim

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

You Can Make a Difference
Make your thoughts known to the people who can change the "Agriscience
Bus Program."
In Cook County: Gail Petersdorff, Cook Co. Farm Bureau, +1-708-354-3276.
In DuPage County: Curtis Miller, DuPage Co. Farm Bureau, +1-630-668-8161.


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D - 38116 Braunschweig

P: +49-531-5168746
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