Why do GMO science communication?

posted in: Commentary | 173

If you’ll permit me, I’d like to philosophize a bit about why I am here, why I keep coming back to science communication. Now that I have a young daughter, I often ask myself how I can best spend my time. Even more so as I read the heartbreaking news of refugees leaving war torn Syria, horrifying gun violence in the US, the dismal state of US politics… I have to tell you that talking about GMOs has seemed like a waste of time for a while now. The science is in, the technology is safe. We can talk about specific use of the technology but those details are so small compared to the huge problems in the world. Still, while these “food fights” feel meaningless compared to so many issues facing the world today, I think we do need to keep on talking.

I think science communication about GMOs and other issues in food and agriculture is necessary for one short term reason, one medium term reason, and one long term reason.

Produce at a grocery store in Fairfax, Virginia, on March 3, 2011. USDA Photo by Lance Cheung via Flickr.
Produce at a grocery store in Fairfax, Virginia, on March 3, 2011. USDA Photo by Lance Cheung via Flickr.

Short term

Short term, the more we share factual information, the more we can help reduce unnecessary fears of parents who are just trying to feed their kids.

We have marketers and activist groups spreading misinformation about perfectly safe and healthy foods, and not everyone has the time or access to do all the research to see if those claims are true. How many families are struggling to buy higher priced foods they maybe can’t afford because they have been told how scary conventional foods are? How many people choose a processed food with fancy labels over actual fruits and vegetables? How many schools are trying to serve speciality food when they could feed more healthy foods to more kids if they stick with conventional?

Maybe organic blueberries do have slightly more antioxidants, but even if they do, at half the price you can have two handfuls of conventional blueberries. Or even better, buy store brand frozen blueberries, which are often cheaper and just as nutritious. Either way, the USDA pesticide residue program tells us that we have nothing to fear. So just feed kids as many fresh (or frozen) fruits and vegetables as you can afford, and don’t worry about any special labels. And maybe donate that extra money you saved to a food pantry.

Medium term

Medium term, the more we can help families make purchasing decisions based on facts instead of fear, then their purchasing decisions may help grocery stores and restaurants to not fall prey to the marketers and activist groups.

I rarely buy name brand foods. I don’t want to pay extra for marketing. For the most part, grocery store brands are just as if not more tasty than name brands, and are often much less expensive. But I have seen a very worrying trend. The more food fears become pervasive, the more stores are meeting that demand for more expensive labels.

More store brand items are being offered only as organic or non GMO. I’ve personally seen this at Safeway, Wegmans, Publix, and Target. Costco is the worst offender of all. There are many items for which they stopped carrying the “regular” kind. I understand the stores have to make money, but if I noticed that food is becoming more expensive and that non-speciality store brand items are disappearing, then I have to wonder how that is pinching families who spend a greater percentage of their incomes on food.

Choice is great. I want farmers to be able to farm how they want, within reasonable regulation. I want to see diversity in agriculture serving even people who choose things I’d never choose. But it’s getting to the point where options are decreasing, not increasing. Medium term, I hope we can keep reasonably priced food around while maintaining the expensive options for those who want them – both here in the US and all over the world.

Long term

Long term, food is a national security issue. People with enough food for themselves and their children are far less likely to make war. As a veteran and as a humanist, the issue of food security is very concerning to me.

Yes, it’s a trope when pro GMO people say we need GMOs to feed the world. I don’t disagree with the statement, as I think farmers all over the world need access to diverse methods (both high and low tech) so they can choose what works for them in order to produce the food that is so desperately needed. But whether we are growing GMOs in the US has little effect on the amount of food available in Africa and Asia. Plus, most of the GMOs grown in the US go to animal feed anyway.

How lack of science based information can affect food security and thus national security is twofold. First, anti GMO sentiment can lead to policies and regulations that keep needed technologies from being developed, and then keep those technologies away from farmers. Second, anti GMO sentiment can affect both export and domestic markets, so even when countries have policies that allow farmers to grow GMOs, the farmers would not have a market available to sell their products.

Long term, I hope that my small science communication efforts, in combination with many others, can mitigate misinformation and help get needed technologies to farmers and needed food to families. The possibilities of disease resistance and stress resistance in crops are too important to leave on the shelf.

Keep on keeping on

It still feels wrong to me to have so many people talking about what is effectively a non-issue, when we have so many real issues that should have our attention. But I have hope that sci comm can have short, medium, and long term impacts if we keep on keeping on. Thank you to all my fellow science communicators for working to share science based information about food and agriculture. And please let’s focus on the misinformation, and not blame farmers for the misdeeds of activist groups and marketing agencies.

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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!