For as long as I can remember I have been surrounded by seeds. Seeds of every shape, size, and colour. Seeds of staple grains and leafy vegetables; of delicate herbs and towering trees. Shelves of seeds in little brown envelopes and large glass jars, each meticulously labelled with a string of letters and digits in thick black marker. An ever-evolving library of genes curated by my grandfather, plant breeder extraordinaire.
My grandfather, John McOnie, during his early years in eSwatini inspecting sorghum lines.
It was seeds that first got me interested in how social media influences the public’s understanding of the agrofood system. Scrolling through the comments section of any post or article on modern seed-breeding techniques is generally a minefield of outrage, and a disheartening experience for anyone who understands the science. The public’s perception of the industry is so widely tainted with misconceptions and misinformation that it appears to be an unintelligible mess with no start or end in sight.
This is the result of a complex mix of poor science communication, the meddling of corporate and political interests, and the social and environmental repercussions of unsustainable practices. More so than ever before the public is disconnected from the system and the communities that feed them, relying on secondary sources for information about how their food is produced. On one hand this is testament to the efficiency of the modern food system: that more and more people do not have to be directly involved in the primary production of their food. We have freed them to pursue careers in other fields, but have not done enough to maintain their trust.
I believe that social media will play a critical role in showing the public that we as scientists and agriculturalists have the best interests of society and the environment at heart. Around the world an increasing number of farmers and scientists are taking to social media to share day-to-day experiences in their fields, orchards, pastures, barns, and laboratories. This is giving consumers insight into the complexity of the agricultural industry, allowing us to unpack the nuance and rationale around ‘controversial’ practices such as pesticides, synthetic fertilisers, and GM crops. Particularly in South Africa, with our diverse agricultural sector, I would like to see more farmers and agricultural specialists sharing their stories online and bringing back a personal voice to the public narrative surrounding the food system.
Social media also has the potential to change the way we approach agricultural extension. My work with Professor Michael van der Laan at the University of Pretoria’s Department of Plant and Soil Sciences looks at the various ways small-scale farmers use social media. We have found that across the world these platforms are widely used to form online communities where agricultural practices are discussed, market opportunities shared, and agribusinesses advertised. These platforms have proven to be effective ways for farmers to organise themselves and share information, with some groups hosting more than half a million members. However, often the agronomic information shared on these platforms is not completely scientifically sound. We have realised that although there is a thirst for knowledge, there are also a number of barriers preventing farmers from accessing the wealth of information stored on the internet.
Through the Ingesta: Farming for the Future Facebook page we aim to create a centralised hub of e-learning resources that farmers will be able to access from any device, in any region, for free. Currently as part of Ms Monica Oberholster’s MSc on science education, our second year agricultural science and ecology students are creating short videos explaining basic agricultural principles to small-scale farmers. These videos are uploaded onto the Ingesta platform, giving our student’s assignments some real-world impact beyond the classroom. Our plan for this year is to expand this project, posting the work of students and researchers at all levels of study. Our end goal is to incorporate these works into formalised learning programmes, available freely to anyone who wants to expand their understanding of agricultural theory and aid our strained national extension services.
Lastly, social media has the potential for being one of the most viable ways of attracting the next generation of agricultural scientists. A 2017 report by the Academy of Science of South Africa concluded that currently “agriculture is not a career of first choice”, and that we are missing out on recruiting gifted scientists into the industry. In my own experience at the University of Pretoria most students simply don’t know of the diverse range of job opportunities in the agricultural sector, and this is again a product of how disconnected the general public is from the food system. Having more agronomists, horticulturalists, geneticists, plant pathologists, soil scientists, agricultural engineers, weed scientists and crop biophysicists actively showcasing their work in the online sphere is a fantastic way to show students what each discipline entails, without any of us having to leave the field or the lab.
Whatever our personal thoughts on how the digital age has shaped modern culture it has to be acknowledged that social media is, and will continue to be, an integral part of how we interact with the world. It’s a way to make new connections, strengthen old partnerships, and showcase our passion and pride for the agricultural industry. Social media is a wave to ride, not a current to fight against.