Local GMO advocate takes to social media

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On Twitter.com, Suzanne Rutherford tweets a question about genetically engineered crops, and shares a link to a video on the subject. Photo by Brett Miller.

IMPERIAL — Suzanne Rutherford of Brawley addressed the Historical Society Thursday night, giving a presentation at Pioneer’s Museum on sugar beets and the benefits of genetically modified food. Rutherford’s family has been in the sugar beet business many decades, but while she may not be involved in the day to day operations, her contribution to the industry has taken a surprisingly modern role — the education of consumers about genetically modified foods, especially through social media, and her blog,  thesweetbeetlife.com.

“Farmer’s talk really well to each other, but they’re not really good at talking to other people about what they do,” began Rutherford. “We’ve never really had to defend the way we do business before.”

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have been commercially approved and available since 1988, but members of the public have increasingly voiced their opposition to such foods. Following much public debate, a federal law was passed in the summer of 2015 to have food labels disclose ingredients that have been genetically modified.

Genetic modification typically involves a gene bearing a desirable trait (resistance to an insect species or extreme temperatures, for example) being added to an organism’s genome. Less often, undesirable traits in the genome are removed. Rutherford compared this process to hybridization, where traits from different strains are combined through cross-pollination or breeding.

“We wouldn’t have all the dog breeds we have today if it weren’t for some genes being swapped around,” said Rutherford.

One of the big misconceptions, according to Rutherford, is that GMO is an ingredient instead of a method. While traditional methods could introduce a desired trait into an existing species, they also introduced additional, and often unwanted, traits as well. Genetic modification allows altering a single gene.

Once a satisfactory strain is produced in a laboratory setting, controlled field-testing takes place, where research, review, and regulation is implemented.

“On average, it takes thirteen years and $130 million dollars of research and development before coming to market,” said Rutherford. The EPA and USDA are among the government entities involved with the approval of new crops.

A critical study released in 2013 which reviewed the scientific literature of the previous ten years, concluded “that the scientific research conducted so far has not detected any significant hazard directly connected with the use of GM crops.” Yet concern is still palpable among the public, including the fear that since GMOs are intellectual property, such seeds could be unduly controlled by seed companies.

Kurt, Rutherford’s husband, recounted how sugar beet farmers were struggling to control weeds while using non-GMO varieties. Development of a new seed began in the mid-2000’s which would allow the plants to resist Round-Up, allowing the farmers to effectively eliminate competing weeds without the crop suffering.

“The industry has roughly 1.2 million acres of beets, and except for about 5,000 acres, it is all GMO. We will not go back,” he said. “But having gone to the GMO, there are misconceptions.”

Rutherford became aware that misinformation about GMOs was gaining momentum, and began to converse with people through Facebook about the subject. While able to share various articles and studies concerning the benefits of GMOs, it became clear that Facebook wasn’t the best platform for such debates. A friend, however, encouraged her to try out another platform: Twitter.

“On Twitter, you can go directly to the issue and respond,” explained Rutherford.

In a weekly newsletter distributed by the American Sugar Beet Grower Association based in Washington, D.C., Rutherford was recognized as being a social influencer for her Twitter engagement on the subject of GMOs.

“It’s instantaneous,” agreed Kurt. While Facebook focuses on established relationships and defaults to security settings that limit interaction with strangers, Twitter is considered to be more conversation-centered than people-centered, with it’s 140 character limit and reduced exposure to click bait and memes. The platform allows Rutherford to more effectively communicate to people to whom she’s not already connected.

“It’s not that we have a problem with non-GMO,” Rutherford clarified. Instead, many of the efforts involved with mandatory labeling were also pushing for a market completely free from genetically modified foods.

Soon, her Twitter involvement allowed her to join a larger conversation. Rutherford focuses more on sharing articles and quoting studies than sharing her own voice. Since joining Twitter in August of 2015, she currently has over 4,200 tweets and 328 followers.

Rutherford shared that she once mocked social media fads such as hashtags.”And now I’m using hashtags everyday,” she said. “Start a Twitter account and you will learn all kinds of stuff.”

While her interactions with people online can get lively, Rutherford hasn’t encountered much opposition to GMOs in the Imperial Valley.

“It’s kind of like preaching to the choir down here,” said Rutherford. “Everyone’s pretty much on the same page.”