Changemakers wants to know what you think of GMOs

A few weeks ago, I got a message from the folks at Ashoka Changemakers – earlier this summer they started a contest, one of many that they host, to spur some original thinking to help see our society out of the debate over genetically engineered crops. It is called GMO Risk or Rescue? Helping Consumers Decide. Here’s what their contest is about:

The debate over the future of our food supply is heating up. Everyone is weighing in on the moral, environmental, and nutritional effects that Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) will have on our society, but how do we really know what’s on our plate?

This summary is well-written and gets everyone in the right mindset to offer up an idea no matter their point of view. The Welcome Letter goes into more detail:

WHAT’S ON YOUR PLATE? Advances in food science and technology have changed dramatically in the last decades. Often food consumers’ voices are not heard in the debate. Yet, no one is more important in the business of food than consumers. How do we know what’s really on our plate? And how do we demonstrate that we have the power to make and demand better choices? We invite our Changemakers community to speak up, challenge each other, and develop ideas and solutions that will have an impact on the world. This competition is about finding the best solutions that educate consumers about what they’re eating, and the effect their food choices will have on the environment and society.

PERHAPS YOUR local gardening association is collecting and preserving seeds to ensure the integrity of our food supply. Or perhaps you’ve spearheaded an awareness campaign advocating GMOs as the answer to climate change and malnutrition. The future of our food supply is at stake, and your ideas could change the way we connect with what we eat.

Again, they did a very careful job in wording everything to appeal to everyone who has something to say on this topic. And the proverbial carrot on a stick to encourage entries is a conversation with Michael Pollan, amongst other things.

The winners will be selected by the Changemakers online community – meaning you!

The three tiers of prizes are:

· The top 20 entries with the most votes will win a social media training session with Ashoka.

· The top 3 entries with the most votes will receive an enhanced social media training session and will be featured in a one-page ad in the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

· The grand prize winner will win a conversation with the best-selling author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan (www.michaelpollan.com).

· The Latin American entry with the most votes will receive a round-trip ticket to anywhere in South America, courtesy of Gol Airlines.

All winners will be announced on September 23, 2009.

Tomorrow is actually the last day to make an entry, so apologies on the short notice if this appeals to you. Actually, there is not much competition so far, with only a few entries in the contest. These entries all take an anti-GE stance, some are quite bad. For example, one redefines food to be that which is not genetically modified (There is no food that fits this definition). The brilliant marketing plan for this one is called “Murder by Food.” Come on readers, you know you can offer up some better ideas than that! Even overnight.

I will be making an entry into this contest in the next day, as soon as I can winnow my notes down to something more readable. But for the moment, I wanted to comment about the contest, and perhaps one of the reasons why the entries are all anti-GE, some extremely so. Perhaps it has something to do with this banner image:

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to eat those tomatoes! Sure they are red, shiny, and glistening with dew, but there’s some evil scientist putting black liquid in with a syringe! I do not want to eat India Ink in my salsa just as much as the next food blogger. And of course, the image bears no resemblence to genetic engineering. Unfortunately, the news media has latched onto the food-with-syringe-of-evil image as a visual description of genetic engineering, and it is really unfortunate that Ashoka Changemakers decided to use this image as the banner for their site. Visitors to the site who are anti-GE would consider the contest to be a safe haven for speaking of genetic engineering in terms of Murder, and pro-GE visitors would think, oh great, another anti-GE site.

Since the contest winner is decided by whomever has the most votes from registered community members, this has the added effect of discouraging pro-GE entries because of the doubtful prospects of getting a fair hearing from registered users.

I sent them a message and they are sincere about the neutrality of the contest, and it is unfortunate that this mistake may have affected the tenor of their effort. I was hoping to see if they would be willing to

change the image to something more accurate or descriptive before I advertised the contest on Biofortified, pointing them to the rotating images on the top right of the blog as examples. Something like this transformed rice plant growing in a petri dish would be much better than the Deadly Drano Nightshade pictured above.

Finally, the title Risk or Rescue, also sets up a problematic dichotomy. Genetic engineering is either a RISK or a RESCUE. The correct response is that genetic engineering is a RESCUE with RISKS. As in all plant modification, whether through breeding, polyploidy, wide crosses (with poisonous wild relatives), genetic engineering carries risks of unintended consequences, sometimes less risk than other, ‘more traditional’ methods. Talking about risks related to genetic engineering has to be put in the larger context of all food risks, and if we are to make any progress in this debate we have to shed what is inaccurate, and recognize how the ways people conventionally approach contentious issues often carries an inherent biasing structure that partially dictates the outcome. The black-and-white Either-Or approach to this question is part of the problem.

I can say no more at this time, otherwise I would be writing my entry on the blog! Check back soon for updates.

Follow Karl Haro von Mogel:
Karl earned his Ph.D. in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics at UW-Madison, with a minor in Life Science Communication. His dissertation was on both the genetics of sweet corn and plant genetics outreach. He recently moved back to his home state of California. His favorite produce might just be squash.