Break the silence on GMOs – with a story

posted in: Commentary | 4
thanks for asking
Image via the Kansas Farm Food Connection.

A recent article argues that it is Time for Farmers to Break Their Silence on GMOs, and I heartily agree. I recently spoke at the GMOs: Now we’re talking! event hosted by the Kansas Farm Bureau, where Bureau President, Richard Felts, asked me what farmers should say. Is there a quick fact or something that could reassure consumers about the safety of modern agriculture, particularly of GMOs?

My response is that most people won’t respond to a quick fact. Even if they would respond to a quick fact, it might be a different fact for each person, depending on their own concerns and background, and what they might have heard about GMOs from friends or through social media. Instead of facts, I believe we need to focus on telling our stories – whether we are farmers or scientists.

A friend was a little concerned that the Kansas Farm Bureau listed among my qualifications that I am a mom, and I think if I hadn’t had this revelation about stories, I would have been concerned too. My opinions on GMOs are based on my scientific background, not my personal details, right? But that’s only partially true. My opinions on GMOs are heavily informed by what I know from the scientific literature, but that is taken in through my personality and my beliefs about the world. As I stated in my talk in Kansas City, I am an environmentalist, and that colors how I see agricultural technologies. Being a mom colors the way I see the science, as well. And while I sheepishly didn’t admit it right after we had a lovely demonstration about how to cook steak by a local chef, being a vegetarian colors my views, too.

I don’t mean to say that I am biased by these or any other characteristics – I firmly believe that the science stands on its own. But I think I am more critical of all safety studies now that I have a daughter to protect. And I know I am more critical of studies claiming environmental friendliness of animal agriculture because I am a vegetarian. I think it makes more sense to claim these lenses up front and tell my story of why I see things the way I do, instead of just pointing to a stack of scientific literature.

Mary and Bob Mertz. Image from the Kansas Farm Food Connection.
Mary and Bob Mertz. Image from the Kansas Farm Food Connection.

Farmers can do the same, as Mary and Bob Mertz shared at the event. Their kids work on the farm and eat the food they raise. I don’t think there is a better story than that. They are real people – and that’s what farmers (and scientists) need to get across. Statistics and graphs about farm production don’t make me trust you, but a glimpse into your life might.

‘s recent post on the Biofortified Blog, Better Know a Scientist: Entomologist Erfan Vafaie, really exemplified this idea of telling your story. His nerdiness and enthusiasm in the interview really made me feel a connection to him, probably due to my shared nerdiness about comic books and enthusiasm about my field. Thanks to my scientific background, I can fact check whatever Erfan says. But it helps a lot to know where he is coming from and to start to develop that trust. And not everyone has the background to fact check, so we all have to rely sometimes on trust.

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Anastasia is Policy Director of Biology Fortified, Inc. and the Co-Executive Editor of the Biofortified Blog. She has a PhD in genetics with a minor in sustainable agriculture from Iowa State University. Her favorite produce is artichokes!