Edmonton

'Beefier barley' researcher says her work does not promote positives of climate change

A university researcher whose work was used in controversial billboards around Edmonton and Calgary says her work was not intended to portray any positive effects of climate change.

Critics slam university campaign meant to highlight 'complex challenges'

One of four University of Alberta billboards with the slogan 'beefier barley' is displayed in Edmonton on Sept. 26. Critics say the billboards portray climate change positively. (Axel Tardieu/Radio-Canada)

A university researcher whose work was used in controversial billboards around Edmonton and Calgary says her work was not intended to portray any positive effects of climate change.

"It was not quite pleasant to see how your research results could be misinterpreted" — in the "beefier barley" ads — "but that's not something I can take control of," said Monireh Faramarzi, assistant professor of earth and atmospheric sciences at the University of Alberta

Faramarzi published research in 2017, exploring how climate change and increased carbon dioxide levels could potentially affect barley production in Alberta. A potential result could be higher barley yields despite less natural rainfall for crops, she found. 

The research went relatively unnoticed in the broader public realm until recently, when billboards referencing it were used in the university's Truth Matters campaign.

The "beefier barley" billboards, displayed at four locations in Edmonton and Calgary, read, "Climate change will boost Alberta's barley yield with less water, feeding more cattle."

Critics say the billboards portray climate change positively.

"If this was the strongest key message, I would definitely have considered this for the title of the paper. But the title of the paper doesn't say so," said Faramarzi on Monday.

"That climate change would be something positive or negative … was definitely not the ultimate message of the paper."

Faramarzi says her research focused on CO2 levels, but there were other factors like water temperature, soil moisture and nutrients that presented "assumptions and limitations" to the outcomes.

"I think the key message of this paper is really specific to this barley yield with the assumptions and limitations that we had in our studies," she said. 

The Truth Matters campaign focuses on highlighting research "that tackles today's complex challenges, and to encourage discussion."

You can't really have both sides of a nuanced and complicated argument on a billboard.- Justin Archer, Berlin Communications

Public relations expert Justin Archer says the current federal election and protests surrounding climate change may have influenced public response to the billboards.

"It just goes to show you that timing really is everything," said Archer, a partner at Edmonton-based Berlin Communications. 

"Right now at this moment in time there's a real thing going on around climate change and there's a real awareness and an awakening, particularly among young people."

Archer believes the medium is also a factor in how the public viewed the message.

"You can't really have both sides of a nuanced and complicated argument on a billboard," he said.

The university's vice-president of university relations, Jacqui Tam, has resigned Sunday over the billboards. But Archer questions whether that was necessary.

"If you think about the role of a professional communicator, you're supposed to generally take the information from your organization and put it out there," he said. "As far as I can tell, that's what they were doing here."

On Sunday, university president David Turpin said normal procedure was not followed in running the ad, which should have been vetted by the school's executive team. He declined further comment on Monday. 

About the Author

Tanara McLean is a producer and journalist at CBC Edmonton. She grew up in Red Deer and has spent her entire career in Alberta, working in print, radio and television.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.