Lindsay Mitchell

Oct 31, 2013  |  Today's News

Halloween seems to be the perfect time to discuss fears, scary stories, and inventions like “frankenfood.”  But of all the things you might have to fear, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) aren’t one of them.

In this thoughtful article by Marc Van Montagu, 2013 World Food Prize Laureate, originally published in the Wall Street Journal, he explains that a fear over GMOs was never even on the radar screen for many scientists.

As a plant scientist, neither I nor my fellow 2013 World Food Prize laureates, Dr. Mary-Dell Chilton and Dr. Robert T. Fraley, anticipated the resistance to genetic modification and biotechnology. After all, nearly everything humans have eaten though the millennia has been genetically altered by human intervention. Mankind has been breeding crops—and thereby genetically altering them—since the dawn of agriculture. Today's techniques for modifying plants are simply new, high-precision methods for doing the same.

Resistance to biotechnology seems all the more unbelievable considering that much of it comes from the same thoughtful people who tend to dismiss climate-change skeptics as "anti-science." It seems to me that much of the resistance to GM foods isn't based on science, but may be ideological and political, based on fears of "corporate profiteering" and "Western colonialism."

To note one irony: The extreme opposition to genetic modification has led to hyper-regulation of GM crops, which has raised the cost of bringing them to market. Now only multinational companies and large research entities can afford to comply with the rules. Smaller enterprises in developing countries are ultimately hurt much more than large conglomerates.”

So many of the things we farmers try to teach to skeptical and, yes, afraid consumers about the GMOs we grow and use are eloquently shared by Mr. Van Mantagu.

Of course, we know where the fear came from.  The media, telling one side of the story for far too long, allowed the creation of extreme fear over the foods farmers were growing.  Even farmers played a role by not forcing the media to consider the other side.

Michael Pollan, journalist and foodie says as much in a recent commentary on the food movement he almost singlehandedly created.

“The media has really been on our side for the most part. I know this from writing for the New York Times where I’ve written about a lot of other topics. But when I wrote about food I never had to give equal time to the other side. I could say whatever I thought and offer my own conclusions. Say you should buy grass feed beef and organic is better, and these editors in New York didn’t realize there is anyone who disagrees with that point of view. So I felt like I got a free ride for a long time.

And then about two years ago maybe three years ago the industry decided they had to fight back and since then they’ve organized a very well-funded PR campaign that sometimes you’ve seen some evidence of… There is something called the Food Dialogues presented in various places to talk about how food is produced and greater transparency and I found this. … And, they are lobbying newspapers and editorial boards saying you have to give equal time and so you see all these kind of anti-locavore pieces and pro-GM pieces on the op-ed page everywhere. So I think they have kind of spooked the newspapers into realizing they need to give equal time on this issue and it is an issue with two sides.”

Your industry, your associations have stepped in, helping people to understand that they don’t have to give in to irrational fears based on marketing and hype that makes a good story in the paper.

It’s Halloween.  We have a lot of things to fear like a dysfunctional government, a growing federal and state deficit, a weather risk to our crops and a barely break-even commodity price.

But we don’t have to fear GMOs.