Differing views must be heard

What is an opinion worth if one cannot express it to others? The short answer is: It does not matter to anyone else.

Dialogue between two or more individuals is essential for ideas within a free society such as ours to take root and grow into whatever action that society wants to do with it.

Agriculture is no different. It requires a free flow of ideas among individuals in order for innovation and advancement of new production practices, or modification of old practices, to occur.

However, in my opinion, a small, yet proactive group of citizens do not like nor desire to encourage open dialogue. It threatens to undermine their cause when people are encouraged to seek verifiable evidence in support of a statement claimed as fact.

Recently, I attended a National Policy Conference in Washington, D.C., sponsored by Crop Life America, an association whose members produce and distribute much of crop protection and biotechnology products used by American farmers.

The purpose of the conference is to encourage healthy dialogue between all sectors of agriculture and everyone else. This includes individuals and groups advancing alternate opinions on agriculture.

Crop Life America has been host to notables such as Julie Borlaug, granddaughter of Norman E. Borlaug, recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for his work that was the foundation of the ?Green Revolution? that has saved at least a billion lives, according to Scienceheros.com.

Robert Kenner, director of the controversial video, ?Food, Inc.,? and Jim Slama, founder and president of FamilyFarmed.org, a promoter encouraging production, marketing and distribution of locally grown and responsibly produced food, participated in the conference in 2011.

This year, Seth Goldman, president and co-founder of Honest Tea, Megan Brown, a sixth-generation cattle rancher and blogger, as well as Dee Dee Darden, a farmer from Smithfield, Va., were engaging participants in discussions moderated by Ali Velshi, currently a host on Al Jazeera American television?s nightly prime time business series.

The second set of panelists this year included Beth Hoffman, a free-lance radio reporter and writer, who also taught for two years at U.C. Berkley?s School of Journalism, and currently teaches at the University of San Francisco and is a blogger for Forbes on food and agriculture.

Dialogue between Hoffman and the audience provided the spark for this year?s conference. As a well-known proponent of all things organic, natural and ?non-GMO,? her perspective was largely non-controversial, though it did motivate several attendees to ask the hard question.

?You acknowledge the benefits of scientific advancement in nearly every aspect of life?how is it that you are unable to recognize the benefit of science-based, peer-reviewed research in biotechnology that involves food and agriculture??

Paraphrased, Hoffman?s response was: ?Food is invasive into my body. It can threaten my life. I do not trust research that is corporate driven. They stand to profit from their sale of their genetically modified food products, and I am against the corporate agricultural mindset of greed.?

Another attendee cited at least a dozen life-saving advances in biotechnology, including the development of a genetically enhanced rice with Vitamin A, a strain that can improve the quality of millions of lives in India and in the Far East.

Yet her position remains: ?I will not allow any food into my body because it might kill or harm me. I do not trust researchers that are paid by corporations and large corporate farms.?

Another attendee asked her how she is paid for being an anti-GMO blogger. Her body language was a dead give-away. She looked down, acknowledging that she gets paid based on the number of hits on her website.

Asked how that is different from a researcher being paid to conduct peer-reviewed research, she maintained her motivation was good, as opposed to the profit motive of corporations like Monsanto.

Yours truly, intrigued by the apparent disconnect between biotechnology in agriculture and other science-based technology, made an attempt to explain that disconnection after requesting permission to speak.

In that moment, Ali Velshi, the moderator, jumped up, interrupted my speech, pointed his finger at me, shook it like he was giving orders and adamantly stated, ?Mr. Penner, you are wrong! There is no disconnect here!?

How about that. A moderator whose mission is to encourage a free flow of ideas became the thought police, and ended the discussion on that note. Apparently, Mr. Velshi has an opinion on the matter as well.

Later, I discovered other attendees, including those in my contingent of wheat farmers, shared my opinion and expressed their frustration over his behavior.

Apparently, there is another disconnection that Mr. Velshi seems to have missed. In America, free speech is not a right that?s given and taken away on a whim. Not even when one is an employee of the Al Jazeera network.

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