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Can a skeptical public be persuaded to embrace GMO foods? Yes, if we want sustainable agriculture

| July 1, 2015

The answer to that question differs sharply whether we are talking about Western countries or the more economically challenged and agriculturally poorer developing world.

In Western capitals, from Sydney to London to San Francisco, we have contradictory views of technology. While we embrace the communications revolution and ‘worship at the feet’ of Apple, many consumers profess fear at a modified apple that resists premature browning.

When it comes to the basics of life such as food and energy, eco-romanticism abounds. It has become a mark of Euro-sophistication to bemoan grocery store bread while yearning for brick ovens; seek out heirloom fruits and vegetables; or ridicule scientists who develop high-yielding modern crops whose genes have been tweaked to use fewer chemical inputs.

Why this ambivalence? Why is Google celebrated as an icon while Monsanto—arguably its equal in innovation, but focused instead on farming—is caricatured and even vilified?

This phenomenon has deep cultural roots. Spurred by the social revolution of the 1960s, younger people began turning away from certain technologies. Shaped by an environmental movement that romanticized a simpler (although non-existent) past, the ‘New Naturalism’ emerged.

Often deeply reactionary in their instincts about science, but self-defined as progressive, ageing boomers and their children—now the cultural and political mainstream—are loathe to recognize the central role of technology in farming and food. Since the days of the counterculture, the movement has presented itself as a political, moral and, curiously, almost a religious crusade. Science can only chip away at the hubris.

What is the trajectory of the global anti-technology food movement? Who is behind it and what are the prospects for recalibrating the public’s views toward food?

The encouraging news is that in the West, victory has been achieved on a central issue—the debate over GM food safety. While just two years ago, the global media was flooded with pictures of cancer-twisted rats, allegedly victimized by eating ‘dangerous’ GM grain, the emerging common wisdom today is that GM foods are safe.

In the United States, major media outlets, almost all of them liberal leaning—New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, Scientific American—have come out with editorials endorsing the safety of GM foods (GMOs), in many cases rejecting mandatory labeling.

The popular trend was underscored by a poll of America’s top scientists, released in January, that showed 88 percent agreed that GMOs are safe—a higher percentage of consensus than on the issue of global warming.

A less pronounced but nonetheless real shift public opinion is also underway in Europe. That was underscored with the recent airing of “GM Food – Cultivating Fear” on BBC Panorama, which profiled genetically modified crops that reduce chemical usage or nutritionally enhance foods. Destined mostly for the developed world, these innovations are the target of what the BBC characterized as scurrilous attacks by anti-science advocacy groups.

Related article:  French President Macron pledges glyphosate ban, halving of pesticide use by 2025 as EU election nears

These are hopeful developments, but the big picture is not all bright. Anti-GMO forces are cleverly sidestepping the growing consensus on GMO safety, coalescing around a new fear-based narrative: biotech crops are linked to the overuse of ‘dangerous’ synthetic chemicals, with glyphosate as the devil poster child.

Forget that GM crops have all but eliminated the use of insecticides on some farms and that herbicide tolerant crops have led to a sharp reduction in the toxicity of chemicals sprayed per acre. This emerging hysteria is not tied to facts but to a deep-seated New Naturalism chemophobia. It’s a precautionary fear, easy to stoke because it does not draw on science, just easily malleable perceptions. It’s a more challenging battle to fight than the one over GMO safety, and one that science alone cannot win.

A sliver of good news? Anti-GMO forces have focused on playing the safety scare card in the developing world, particularly in Africa and Asia. But as the consensus over GMO safety becomes mainstream in countries from Bangladesh to Uganda, the greatest impediment to adoption will recede. Product innovation in developing countries is focused on GM crops like cotton and brinjal that reduce inputs, rescuing disease-threatened banana, traits that protect against drought and flooding, and nutritionally enhanced rice and cassava. This is Biotech 2.0: traits that both farmers, relieved of having to spray their fields multiple times each week, and consumers, who can feed their children more nutritious foods at lower prices, can both recognize.

The key issue: Will the GMO-linked chemophobia now sweeping the U.S. and other Western countries retard the gradual progress that has been made in the developing world? Will anti-technology activists succeed? I strongly suggest a great read on this controversy, an essay by Ted Nordhaus, founder of The Breakthrough Institute, analyzing the sustainability myths and truths of modern agriculture.

By romanticizing the past, we miss the fact that it is the global, industrial economy that allows us to savor traditional and fresh foods in our increasingly affluent homes. What we need is an ethos that comes to terms with large scale agricultural products that can meet the needs of a growing world population and not one that dismisses it; that opens choices for everyone, including those in more vulnerable parts of the world who have not fully benefitted from the revolution in food and farming.

Jon Entine, executive director of the Genetic Literacy Project, is a senior fellow at the World Food Center Institute for Food and Agricultural Literacy, University of California-Davis. Follow @JonEntine on Twitter

The GLP featured this article to reflect the diversity of news, opinion and analysis. The viewpoint is the author’s own. The GLP’s goal is to stimulate constructive discourse on challenging science issues.

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