GMO Answers: A listening ear for troubled consumers - The Packer

GMO Answers: A listening ear for troubled consumers

01/13/2014 05:27:00 PM
Tom Karst

Tom KarstI was just trying to call up regulations.gov for the latest eye-popping statistics on Arctic apple comments, but alas, it was not to be. I was met with this message:

“We experienced temporary technical difficulties and are working to restore full operations as soon as possible. Please check the site periodically for availability. We appreciate your patience and apologize for any inconvenience.”

 

Well, we have become spoiled. We expect the entire sum of knowledge to be at our fingertips, and when it is not, we are flummoxed. At least we don’t have to go to Washington. D.C. to inspect what comments have been submitted on this and other hot button topics, am I right?Just don’t make it a habit of going dark, feds.

 On the topic of GMOs, I was reading a release from the Farm Bureau Federation about a new website that answers consumer questions about GMOs.

From the release, former Western Growers DC staffer Cathleen Enright informs attendees of the Farm Bureau’s convention about the work of the Biotechnology Industry Organization:

Despite the head start biotechnology opponents have, there’s still plenty of opportunity for farmers, ranchers and the biotechnology industry to change the conversation about genetically modified organisms, Dr. Cathleen Enright told attendees at a workshop at the American Farm Bureau Federation’s 95th Annual Convention. The key to making that change happen is an open and transparent dialogue with consumers, according to Enright, Biotechnology Industry Organization executive vice president, food and agriculture.

While the adoption of GM crops is on the rise around the world, so is consumer opposition in the U.S. “More and more organizations are working to create fear, attack agriculture and malign biotechnology companies,” Enright said. And if the mandatory ballot labeling activity in more than 30 states in 2013 is any indication, the anti-GMO message is getting through. There are three components common to all these legislative efforts and ballot initiatives: they are framed as consumers’ “right to know;” they exempted alcohol, dairy, meat and restaurant food; and they would allow lawsuits based on asserted non-compliance.

 “They’re trying to change market conditions through legislation. Their goal is to convince you to buy something else,” Enright said. Opposing these efforts on a state-by-state basis is unsustainable and untenable, she added. Anti-GMO groups were among the first to use social media to establish their message and rally people around their cause, but biotech supporters are catching up quickly. With research showing that people who have unfavorable opinions about GMOs base their purchasing decisions on other factors, like price, there is clearly an opening for farmers, ranchers and other biotech proponents, Enright said.

The first step to opening that dialogue is acknowledging people’s skepticism about food made with GM ingredients. “We have great stories that are not being heard because we are not believed,” she said. “Only when our audiences understand we are listening to them will they listen to us.” To that end, BIO last year launched the GMO Answers website, through which they invite anyone to ask any question about biotechnology. And ask people did. From July through December, 626 questions were posed and 404 were answered. Another 100-plus are in the process of being answered. Also during this time, there were more than 120,000 visits to the site and more than 526,000 page views, with visitors spending more than 5 minutes on the site on average—a significant amount of time. The questions are answered by independent, third-party experts. Enright also credits the website for the uptick in biotech coverage by the mainstream media. “Who wouldn’t be interested in asking Monsanto, Dow or DuPont the tough questions?” Enright asked. Whether it’s a considerable undertaking like GMO Answers or a conversation between a farmer and grocery store customer, the main goal is to give people the whole story so they can make up their own minds. There’s too much at stake not to succeed, she added. “We are going to need as much knowledge, diversity and innovation as possible to feed the world.”

 

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Enright’s comment that “Only when our audiences understand we are listening to them will they listen to us” is dead on. Still, will that listening ear be enough? Enright notes that consumer opposition to GMOs in the U.S. is on the rise; GMO labeling activity in 30 states is surely sobering for biotech proponents.

Check out the GMO Answers website here.

 

 A search of the GMO Answers website yielded three questions that hit on the “Arctic” search term

 From one of those results, Steve Savage writes of 800-pound gorillas and biotech adoption. 

Read the whole piece for a good perspective on the role that big corporations have had in the debate. Savage brings the reader up to date on the latest biotech issues facing the agriculture industry and retailers. From the column, Savage writes:

 

Last year, Seminis Seeds (a Monsanto subsidiary) commercialized some new insect resistant sweet corn hybrids. Even though Syngenta’s Bt sweet corn had already been on the market for many years, the major grocery retailers and processors had quietly suppressed its use and it was mainly grown for the roadside market. Thus few of the mostly local sweet corn growers ever got to take advantage of that technology which could have saved them many insecticide sprays each season. (90) The anti-GMO crowd tried to make a big issue of the new hybrids and threatened to sponsor a boycott of Wal-Mart if they carried the product. Wal-Mart (an eight hundred pound gorilla if there ever was one) was bold enough to say that they saw no reason not to carry Bt sweet corn. Whether they actually did isn’t clear. Still, the controversy faded.

Perhaps scientists, farmers and reasonable people in general can encourage the gorillas to take a different stand this time. For instance, I’d like to be first in line to buy “Arctic Apple” from some brave retailer and then pass them out to friends and family. (91) With social networking organizing something like that with lots of supporters is certainly possible. Maybe things could start small with deliveries to a few distribution points in people’s garages. How about coming together to enjoy some fries from whatever restaurant is first willing to talk about using a healthier oil to cook low acrylamide potatoes? How about writing campaigns to encourage gorilla companies to stand up to the purveyors of fear.

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Savage has unreasonably high expectations for Wal-Mart and other big chain stores if he believes they will “first in line” to buy Arctic apples, given the weight of public comments against the Arctic apple. Note the thousands of comments against the Arctic apple on the flickering regulations.gov website. But this give and take about biotech in agriculture, these GMO Answers, may be part of a winning strategy toward hard fought consumer acceptance.



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