Rob Saik, Industry Innovator, wants to know

No GMO or Know GMO? It’s a play on words, but the topic is without doubt a serious one. How will agriculture feed a world population that experts are predicting will reach nine billion by 2050?

In his TEDx talk, Pushing Boundaries in Agriculture, Robert Saik presented on the current state of GMO in the public’s perception. Saik posed a provocative question: “It’s not if agriculture can feed nine billion people. The real question is, will we be allowed to?”

Rob Saik presents Pushing Boundaries in Agriculture, TEDx

According to Saik, the founder of Agri-Trend Group, a North American agriculture technology integration organization, “Agriculture is getting hammered from every direction right now by people who do not understand the depth of science that’s involved in agriculture today.”

“When did the organic movement become the anti-GMO movement? And more importantly, why?” asks Saik. “If activists keep pressing to take away tools from agriculture like GMO technology, we’re putting the industry in a really tough position.”

“So when people stand up and shout ‘No GMO’, they’re really condemning a huge part of agriculture to regression and archaic practices like utilizing more fertilizer, more tillage and more pesticides. This is the part many don’t realize.”

Addressing Misconceptions

The idea of Know GMO the Movie was born in an attempt to slow down the conversation surrounding science and agriculture, encouraging people to stop and think a little bit before they make anti-GMO claims.

“One of the reasons we wanted to do the movie is because if you go to Netflix or other online sources to try to find positive stories about agriculture, it’s very hard to find messages that are not selling fear,” says Saik, who has assumed the role of executive producer for the Know GMO film project. “We wanted to make a movie that takes a more straightforward approach.”

Watch the Know GMO trailer

“Defining terms is also important,” adds Saik. “GMO is not an ingredient. It’s a series of breeding processes, so if we’re going to label breeding processes, we had better label them all including mutagenesis, hybridization and cross-pollination.”

The goal is to screen Know GMO at high-profile film festivals including TIFF, Sundance and Cannes. “In fact,” says Saik, “based on the trailers we’ve produced so far, we’ve been contacted from film festivals in Amsterdam and the Czech Republic wanting to screen our movie once it’s ready to go.”

As for the intended audiences, Saik hopes to reach out to viewers in city centres and suburbs. “It is very important that this message goes urban and that we figure out a way to distribute it as much as possible,” he says.

Saik refers to the preconceived notion that urban audiences acquire from online searches that expose them to fear-mongering opinions. “We’ve found that when we ask them if they trust farmers, the answer is a resounding ‘yes’,” he says, “But when asked about trusting agriculture, the answer comes up as ‘no’. So that’s a really interesting disconnect that we want to address in the movie.”

Success Stories From Around the Globe

The film is being directed by Saik’s son, Nick, an established filmmaker who has used seed capital from farmers, agri-retailers and farm associations to complete filming for the project – capturing 105 hours of footage for the 90-minute movie, and related featurettes.

The filming was extensive, covering Hawaii, Argentina, Uganda, Kenya, Florida, Missouri, California and the U.S. Corn Belt. Canadian filming focused on the western provinces. “The film footage we’ve taken in Kenya and Uganda depicts the challenge those farmers are facing with respect to bacterial wilt and black sigatoka in the banana crop along with brown streak mosaic virus in cassava – both pose significant problems for which there is currently no solution.” Footage from Argentina shows the effects that zero-tillage made possible by GMO crops has produced, which Saik describes as phenomenal. “These farmers have been zero-tilling for 20 to 30 years and because of GMO technology they will leave more earth behind than when they arrived. The soil is getting better.”

A Powerful Tool for Education

The secondary audience for the film project is the farm community itself, which Saik says is inadequately equipped to defend their practices. A series of featurettes are in the works to provide sound bites for rural audiences, says Saik, “So that farmers can talk about what they’re doing in a well-thought-out manner, and one that they’re prepared for.”

These same featurettes can be utilized in classrooms at all levels. “We have a great connection with Ag in the Classroom right now,” he says.

Saik is committed to ensuring that the movie will be provided free of charge to the agricultural community, in the hopes that they will host screenings in their local centres.“It will provide agri-retailers and farmers with a powerful tool. They can organize a Know GMO night, rent the local theatre, invite everyone and perhaps the popcorn sales proceeds can go to the local food bank,” he suggests.

“I want to have agri-retailers all across North America, and eventually worldwide, showing this movie and educating audiences.”

Producers Helping Production

Tim Kelly farms a 7500-acre heritage farm in Cut Knife, Sask., and is one of the project’s supporters. “I gave some money towards the movie, you bet,” says Kelly. “I just feel there’s a lot of negative information out there towards GMO in the media, and on social media.”

“City environments don’t really understand the whole picture of how GMOs are a tool that increases our production,” he says. “We can feed the world on less land partly because of the technology that’s available in genetics… that message isn’t out there. What is out there is the message that somehow GMO and science is a bad thing – and I don’t agree with that.”

Kelly places confidence in Saik’s storytelling abilities, and has high hopes for the project’s ability to change perceptions. “Rob is a great advocate of agriculture,” he says. “His vision for the movie, to get it into theatres and classrooms, will help show the positive side of GMOs.”

Another contributor to Know GMO, Marcel Van Staveren, has been farming a 17,000-acre grain and oilseed operation near Regina since the early nineties. “When I started farming in 1992, we were still growing conventional canolas and were doing a lot of extra field operations from tillage to using kilos of active ingredients to control weeds,” says Van Staveren. “Since then we’ve evolved to a zero-till and cut our passes down thanks to GMO technology.”

“I see so many benefits from my viewpoint, but maybe someone walking down the street in San Francisco may not understand,” he adds. “I’m hoping this movie will be an opportunity to educate more people to make a more informed decision.”

If we can change the conversation from shouting at each other to respectful listening, I think that would be a huge step forward.
- Rob Saik

Community Support

The film project funds are being administered by The Farm & Food Care Foundation who is providing tax deductible receipts for eligible donors who support the movie.

“To get the movie off the ground, I personally threw in $10,000 which was followed by Agri-Trend,” says Saik. “Then I made some phone calls and got support of $10,000 from Blair’s Fertilizer, The AGSI Group, Wendland Ag, Shur-Gro, The Rack and Redfern’s. This initial $80,000 got the movie started. Since then, many agri-retailers, famers and farm organizations have pitched in to support the project.”

Financial support for the film has now grown to over $800 thousand, but the film still needs another $600 thousand to complete production. “So many in the agriculture industry have contributed already, but we’re still working to raise capital,” says Saik. “This money could be raised overnight if everyone with a stake in the success of GMO technology stepped up like we’re hoping they will. We need the community’s support to make this initiative a reality.”

“If we can change the conversation from shouting at each other to respectful listening, I think that would be a huge step forward.” Saik anticipates that Know GMO the Movie will provide a unique platform for furthering that important conversation.

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