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Q&A With Rob Saik

If advocating for technology in agriculture means being called “radical,” he'll take the personal attack.

In a time when many consumers are left confused by food labels and agricultural advancements, Rob Saik is taking on the role of GMO advocate. With a love for ag technology and a lifetime of farming experience on his side, people are listening. 

Truthfully, most of the audiences that Saik speaks to are made up of individuals who work in the agricultural industry. Arguably his greatest speaking opportunity was a 20-minute TEDx talk he gave in November 2014 called “Pushing Boundaries in Agriculture.” When introduced, the host called Saik a radical in front of an audience who knew very little about agriculture. That talk has been viewed over 110,000 times online.

For Saik, his fascination with agricultural technology started on his family’s farm in Alberta, Canada, and accelerated when he went to college. In 1981, he brought home a computer and told his father it was the future of farming. Despite his father’s initial dismay at the price, Saik built a career and many companies based on the idea that technology is the future of ag.

SF: You describe yourself as profoundly optimistic about agriculture. Why is that?

RS: I work in it every day, and I just see the innovation. Farmers are tremendously innovative. Everywhere around the planet that I travel, farmers are coming up with new ideas. You know, the reason that we’re making Know GMO the movie to (help others) understand genetic engineering is because I am profoundly impressed with the technology. I don’t want to go back to mutagenesis or randomized open pollination of breeding when we can utilize this technology. 

SF: How can farmers help people understand genetic engineering?

RS: Farmers can get vocal. Farmers can start to speak out. Farmers need to get off their hands, which is very uncomfortable for farmers. As an industry, we need to create the right information so farmers get comfortable talking about genetic engineering. When farmers are getting challenged at a city table – or even at their kitchen tables – about what they think about GMOs, the first thing that I want farmers to do is put up their hands and say, “Can we stop for a second? Can we change the terminology from GMO to genetically engineered?”

SF: How is the U.S. handling food labeling compared with Canada?

RS: I think the Canadian model is actually the envy of a lot of jurisdictions around the planet. It does not evaluate a trait based on the breeding technology. So if you have rust-resistant wheat or perhaps a fungus-resistant flax that’s been developed, it will be assessed based on the trait itself. Because of the U.S. and where it sits, you’ve got all these states trying to come up with their own laws.

The Senate and ultimately Congress have passed a new labeling law for the U.S., which the USDA has to figure out how it’s going to deal with a nationwide labeling issue around genetic engineering. It’s preposterous. It’s not an ingredient! It’s a breeding process. It’s like labeling food based on whether it was harvested with a John Deere or Case or New Holland combine, because it’s meaningless. 

I think it’s the first time there’s a concrete example where distorted and panic policy are leading in a direction that’s not in the interest of the public good at all.

SF: Do you think the public’s perception of farming – red barn, overalls – will drastically change in your lifetime?

RS: The perception of a farm will not change unless agriculture gets behind the necessary work to cause the perception and changes to happen. I don’t know what icons have to replace the little red barn or the open cab tractor or the farmer with bib overalls. But I know that so long as agriculture keeps using those icons, we’re going to have a hard time sharing the fact that agriculture has progressed to a high-tech industry with a broadened consumer base. 


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