By Chris Bennett
Biotech opponents control the conversation with emotion.
Liberation from the inconvenience of science has enabled the anti-GMO movement to thrive in a climate of half-truths and forecasts of pending doom for the past 20 years. Coupled with a conventional agriculture industry that was initially either too complacent or tone-deaf to counter the barrage of trumped-up assertions, the anti-biotech crowd took command of digital space and bulldogged social media platforms. It’s clear: Control the medium, control the message.
With a mandatory labeling fight brewing and a litany of GMO crop issues yet to be fought, the din of the anti-GMO campaigners grows ever louder. However, agriculture has risen from its stupor and stopped ceding ground, turning away from what was essentially a policy of silence.
Agriculture often thinks anti-GMO activists are a gang of Luddites intent on bedlam—an assessment as costly as it is faulty. Cathleen Enright, executive vice president for food and agriculture, Biotechnology Industry Organization, says 15 to 20 core groups drive the anti-GMO agenda, with 300 secondary groups in support.
“They operate in a manner of focused activity or division of labor,” she explains. “Some groups push legislation; some do research; some run campaigns (ballot initiatives); and some drive litigation (suing EPA, USDA or FDA). Their organization and use of social media is brilliant.”
In a 24/7 news world, social media neglect carries dire consequences in the arena of public opinion. Enright emphasizes action and information through educational websites such as www.gmoanswers.com.
“Regardless of motivation, consumers ask questions about how food is grown, and they deserve answers,” Enright says. “We need a mechanism for the conversation that works for everyone, but I don’t believe the answer is a mandatory label because it prejudices GMO technologies.”
She suggests the possibility of an app, barcode or website as a conduit for further information.
The mandatory labeling lobby targets food companies and technology developers, conveniently leaving most food unlabeled. Meat, dairy, alcohol and ready-to-eat meals are untouched—a calculation to steer away from opposition from the spirits industry or National Restaurant Association.
Across the world, biotech crops have a 20-year record demonstrating the ability to achieve more with less water, land, energy, fertilizer, pesticides and habitat pressure. However, the benefits of biotech crops are ground to irrelevancy when anti-GMO groups skirt the bounds of science. The preponderance of evidence shows no GMO health issues after countless reviews from international health authorities and regulatory bodies. Yet, groups adept at selecting science continue to thrive by keeping the GMO doomsday clock permanently set at three minutes to midnight.
The consequences of selective science go far beyond legal battles over labeling and lawsuits.Golden rice, created in the late 1990s, is still on the shelf, yet offers a lifeline to millions of children that die each decade from vitamin A deficiency. In addition, golden rice might keep millions of children from going blind in the same time frame. In 1999, scientists in Europe took rice DNA and inserted beta-carotene genes vital to the human body to produce vitamin A.
Such promise with golden rice should have paved the path toward the sustenance of millions of vitamin-deprived children. Instead, blocking golden rice cultivation has become a crusade for anti-GMO campaigners who continue to hurl false—but headline grabbing—claims.
“Let’s be clear: If we go back to pre-GMO agriculture, there won’t be enough food to feed the world,” says John Rigolizzo Jr., a Truth About Trade and Technology (TATT) board member and a fifth generation farmer in Berlin, N.J. “I fear it, and I’m willing to fight. I want to see agriculture improve, not go in reverse.”
Rigolizzo backs increased provision of GMO material, but says the public often ignores technical explanations.
“It’s easy to make fear-mongering claims against a term—GMO—that people don’t understand,” Rigolizzo says. “Boil it down and it’s simple: Advancements in science have speeded things up and let us pick out crop traits we like—bigger tomatoes, sweeter green beans or earlier corn. In the past, breeding was done by hand and took great lengths of time. We’re talking about a technology jump between a dial phone and a digital phone.”
Silence from farmers is not a tacit admission of guilt or surrender, but it often serves the same purpose when matched with the unfailing persistence of anti-GMO advocates. CommonGround volunteer Kristie Swenson, who farms near Trimont, Minn., believes GMO silence on the part of reticent producers only leads to a lack of trust from consumers and organizations advancing anti-agriculture agendas. It also feeds increased government regulations.
“If farmers don’t speak up about GMOs, then someone else will speak up with misinformation, or people will draw their own conclusions—or both,” she says.
Ready Yourself With Answers to Top GMO Questions
Anti-GMO campaigns are marketing ploys anchored to emotion, not science, but they counter the rhetoric in a delicate balance to the public. When engaging in a conversation about GMOs, Minnesota farmer Kristie Swenson says to acknowledge the concern, bring it to a personal level and share small bites of science. Based on a survey of 1,000 people by GMO Answers and the Council for Biotechnology Information, these are the five most common questions about GMOs:
1. Do GMOs cause cancer?
“The short answer is no. There is absolutely zero reputable evidence that GMO foods cause cancer,” says Kevin Folta, University of Florida interim chairman and associate professor of Horticultural Sciences. The health and safety of GMOs have been validated by many independent scientists and organizations. There are more than 1,080 studies about the health and safety of GMOs available atwww.biofortified.org.
2. Are GMOs causing an increase in allergies?
“No commercially available crops contain allergens that have been created by genetically engineering a seed or plant,” says Lisa Katic, a registered dietitian and expert in food policy. A rigorous testing process ensures that will never happen. However, if a person is allergic to a non-GMO plant, for example soy, he or she will also be allergic to the plant’s GMO counterpart on the market today.
3. Are big companies forcing farmers to grow GMOs?
“None of the seed companies force farmers like me to buy any particular product … I can buy seed from any vendor I choose from one year to the next,” says Brian Scott, an Indiana farmer who grows corn and soybeans. Jillian Etress, a high school agriculture teacher and family farmer from south Alabama, says they “choose to use or not use GMOs based on the needs of [their] farm.”
4. Are GMOs increasing the price of food?
While the cost of food is impacted by various factors, GMOs play an important role in keeping those prices as low as possible. “Actually, GMOs have contributed to reducing the real cost of food,” explains Graham Brookes, agricultural economist, PG Economics Ltd.
5. Are GMOs contaminating organic food crops?
The coexistence of multiple production methods, such as organic, conventional and GM, is not a new concept. Farmers have been producing different types of crops next to one another before and since GM seeds were first introduced in 1996. They work hard every day to manage their farms to ensure each crop meets the appropriate marketing requirements.
To access resources to address anti-GMO influence,
as well as other issues farmers face, visit www.AgWeb.com/agriculture-challenge
An AgWeb article