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A Nutritionist Reflects on the Sad State of Health Education About GMOs and Farming at Schools and Universities

Ruth MacDonald, PhD, Author, Professor and Chair, Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, Iowa State University, and Interim Senior Associate Dean for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences | August 8, 2018
Highlights:
  • Anti-GMO propaganda documentary films have become a prime source of misinformation
  • Most teachers have no background in farming or health issues and readily pass along anti-biotechnology jeremiads as facts
  • Scientists are frustrated trying to counter this tsunami of fear-mongering when the education establishment is uniformly in the thrall of anti-GMO propaganda

Earlier this year, Iowa State University hosted about 300 high school students from around the state who participated in the World Food Prize Youth Institute. These students spent the last year working on a research paper that investigated a major food or health topic in a developing country. They came to our campus to present their papers, and engage in discussions with faculty, representatives from non-profit organizations, industry and government leaders. I served as one of the discussion leaders and had the opportunity to talk with several students during the day.

The issues that the students addressed in their papers centered on the struggle many developing countries face with malnutrition, subsistence farming and insufficient agriculture production. During the day, the issue of genetically modified crops arose repeatedly. Because these students are from Iowa, a major farm state, they tend to be aware of the use of GMO crops, although only a small portion of them come from farm families.

Some of them suggested that developing countries should adopt Western farming practices, including GMO technologies, so that they could feed their people. Most were aware of the controversies about GMO use in developing countries but were also confused about the scope of the issue.

In our conversations, I came to realize that their education about GMO foods in their classrooms was heavily based on documentary films; one might say propaganda films, since almost all of them are heavily biased and against agricultural biotechnology.

In our conversations, I came to realize that their education about GMO foods in their classrooms was heavily based on documentary films; one might say propaganda films, since almost all of them are heavily biased and against agricultural biotechnology.

One student, from Prairie City High School, shared with me that his teacher showed ‘GMO OMG’ to his class as an introduction to the technology. This documentary by Jeremy Seifert fully opposes the use of GMO technology and according to most independent critics is laden with inaccuracies and misinformation. Esteemed film critic Roger Ebert called it a “misfire,’ grudgingly giving it a 1-star rating, writing: “Seifert’s arguments are dependent on unconvincing testimony and leaps in logic. …GMO OMG is do-gooder propaganda. … [It] is a jeremiad, not a lesson for the masses.”

I asked the student if his teacher made any effort to provide a balance to the documentary, if there were other readings or discussions. His answer was a disappointing ‘no’ and in fact the teacher seemed to think the content was reliable. The student that shared this story told me that he had a family member that worked in the seed industry, and he had done some additional reading on his own, so he knew that the ‘GMO OMG’ documentary was not accurate, but many of his peers were convinced of the dangers of GMO foods after watching the movie.

If you are a teacher, and you want to engage your students in a discussion about GMOs, where could you go for information? There is no core curriculum about this topic. In fact teachers are not even required to teach about food or nutrition. Without a reliable resource, you might turn to the internet and look for a documentary.

There are many options to choose from, I found 10 with one click on Google. Like ‘GMO OMG’, these 10 documentaries all paint a negative and unscientific perspective of GMO technology. Because there are so many junk films and they are so readily available it makes sense that teachers often rely unthinkingly on sensationalized documentaries about GMOs that provide a one-sided perspective. Compound this with the fact that teachers, even those that teach health, rarely take a course in nutrition, food science or agriculture and may not be able to distinguish accurate information about this topic.

Recently, I was invited by an elementary school teacher in another state to speak to one of his students who wanted to do a research project about GMO foods. I volunteered to do this and agreed to speak with the student on the phone several times over the course of a month. I provided scientifically-based information about how GMOs are developed, what they are used for, how they are tested for safety and several references that described scientific evidence for their safety.

If you are a teacher, and you want to engage your students in a discussion about GMOs, where could you go for information? There is no core curriculum about this topic.

When the student had completed her project, the teacher shared a video link with me of the presentation. Much to my surprise the presentation focused only on how GMOs were unsafe for people, animals and the environment, with the student proudly concluding that GMOs should be banned.

The teacher was clearly very pleased with this presentation and made no effort to question the sources used by the student for accuracy or peer evaluation. The science-based information I provided was completely left out of the presentation. In 2014 I agreed to work with Red Line Editorial to serve as a ‘qualified consult’ on a book preliminarily called ‘Genetically Modified Foods for Children’ in a series called Food Matters. The editor wrote to me:

The book is aimed at a 3rd-6th grade audience. We would like feedback on the manuscript to address whether the topic is being covered evenly and fairly and to know if we are misrepresenting any information.

With the hope that I could provide scientific accuracy to this topic for children, I agreed to review the text. The first draft of the book was sent to me and I made significant edits. In my response to this draft I wrote to the editor,

The major concern I had with the original text was the undercurrent that GMO technology is actually bad and should be avoided. This is reinforced by the sidebars and activities which I do not support and have recommended be deleted. There is strong scientific evidence that GMO foods are safe for humans and animals and there are no credible sources that contradict that evidence. This is the perspective that I tried to convey in my edits. I would be happy to dialog with the author about these edits or provide additional references as needed. I ask that I be allowed to see the final version and would only allow my name to be associated with a text that I believe accurately reflects the main-stream scientific evidence.

Several weeks later I received the final version of the text that clearly made none of the changes I had recommended. In fact, the title of the book was changed to “Genetically Modified Food” with a picture of protestors holding up a sign that read “GMOs Must Go.”

At that point I withdrew my engagement with the editor, writing:

That is unfortunate that you are choosing to promote a non-scientific perspective on this topic. The images you are using instill fear and warning to young children that are not warranted based on the preponderance of scientific and medical evidence. I had hoped that the authors wanted to inform and educate. That does not seem to be their goal and I do not want to be part of that approach. We should be encouraging scientific thinking and evidence in our youth, not promoting non-science emotional perspectives.

I suspect that the author, Rebecca Rissman, received great support for her perspectives from the other content reviewers that were asked to review this book, and my comments were considered the minority vote. So despite my efforts to correct misinformation, this book is available for elementary school teachers as a resource to instruct students about GMO technology.

During lunch at the Youth Institute, I sat with a group of students from three different schools and asked them what they had learned about GMOs in class. Some had never discussed the topic and others mentioned documentaries they watched. When I asked if anyone had seen ‘Food Evolution,’ the Neil deGrasse Tyson-narrated film that is widely considered the one scientifically-grounded documentary on this subject, there were blank stares.

This documentary was funded by the Institute of Food Technologists and does an excellent job of portraying the scientific evidence for GMO safety. The website indicates the video will be available for classroom use during 2018. But as those of who have been in the GMO debate for the past 15 years know, providing scientific evidence for safety or environmental impacts of this technology does not easily change minds. The preponderance of media available today about GMO technology are sensationalist and fear-mongering, so why are we surprised that that is the message our students are getting?

Many of my colleagues have shared similar experiences of being unable to convince a teacher or a school principal to use scientific evidence rather than popular media to teach students about food and nutrition. Scientists must continue to stand up and raise our voices, especially for our youth. The good news is that scientists are hearing that message and making efforts to communicate what they do and why to the public.

I personally, will not decline any request to speak to a group or work with a teacher or student to help them understand GMO safety, despite my lack of impact so far, because I truly believe in the science. If we all do that perhaps we together we can change the direction of this dialogue.

Dr. Ruth MacDonald is Professor and Chair, Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, Iowa State University, and Interim Senior Associate Dean for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She holds a PhD in Nutrition, minor in Food Science, and Masters in Nutrition, minor in Physiology from the University of Minnesota, and is a Registered Dietitian. Her research interests include the role of dietary factors in cancer progression, specifically breast, colon and prostate cancer. With funding from the USDA she leads the Cyclone Scholars program that provides tuition scholarships to underrepresented students majoring in food science and human nutrition. She is co-author of Understanding Food Systems: Agriculture, Food Science and Nutrition in the United States (Elsevier, 2017). Follow her on Twitter: @isumacd

Global Farmer Network (GFN) is a non-profit advocacy group led by farmers from around the world who support free trade and farmers’ freedom to choose the tools, technologies and strategies they need to maximize productivity and profitability in a sustainable manner. Established in 2000, the Global Farmer Network is committed to inserting the worlds farmers voice in the global dialogue regarding food and nutritional security. The Global Farmer Network identifies, engages and supports strong farmer leaders from around the world who can work with others to innovate, encourage and lead as full stakeholders in the work that is being done to fill the world’s food and nutrition security gap in a sustainable manner.

The Genetic Literacy Project is a 501(c)(3) non profit dedicated to helping the public, journalists, policy makers and scientists better communicate the advances and the technological, ethical and religious challenges ushered in by the biotechnology and genetics revolution, including CRISPR gene editing, in biomedicine and agriculture.

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