Truth Be Told

Two experts share the plain facts about genetic engineering, highlighting its safety and benefits.

How can the ag industry debunk the myths about genetic engineering?

Greg Conko
Greg Conko, executive director, Competitive Enterprise Institute: Our challenge is not the message, because we have a good story to tell already. It’s getting that message into the types of media that grab people’s attention. If I have the opportunity to sit down and talk to people who have not made up their minds about the technology, I can alleviate some of their concerns with scientific facts. But the challenge is I can’t sit down and talk to 300 million Americans or 7 billion people on the planet and give them the same level of attention. We must find a way to get our message into places where people will see it. Even in the science section of The New York Times or in Popular Science magazine, you read very positive things about GMOs (genetically modified organisms). The problem is most people aren’t reading that section of the paper. They’re reading the sports or lifestyle sections.

Part of the answer is the creative use of humorous, entertaining YouTube videos that will enable us to incorporate scientific information into a package that people are going to watch, instead of a talking-head scientist lecturing the audience. Also, in the same way we’ve spent 15 or 20 years reaching out to those Popular Science reporters with some success, we now have to start chipping away at the edges of food and pop-culture sections of newspapers and magazines.

Cathleen Enright
Cathleen Enright, Ph.D., executive vice president, food and agriculture, Biotechnology Industry Organization: We have to tell our story. For too long, opponents have defined us, and our failure to engage consumers has left a deep deficit of trust. Last summer, Syngenta and other members of the agricultural biotechnology industry made a public commitment to openness and transparency, launching GMO Answers to create a dialogue that’s driven by consumers’ questions and their desire to learn more about where their food comes from. In the past 12 months, experts have responded to more than 600 questions posted to, and we’ve engaged in hundreds more conversations through Twitter and Facebook. We’ve seen a positive shift in the tone of media coverage and an increase in the volume of supportive voices. This is only the beginning. We are literally opening the door to our industry by organizing Open-Door Tours at our members’ facilities and fields. We’ll continue to crisscross the country, hosting discussions, participating on panels and talking with folks who bring different views to the table.

How do you know GMOs do not cause health problems in humans?

Conko: Most of the major scientific bodies in the U.S., Europe and Asia have looked thoroughly at the literature and have concluded there is no evidence of harm. More importantly, we can predict that there will be no harm because of what we know about genetic engineering. In plant or animal breeding, the purpose is to move genes around within an organism or between organisms to give them new characteristics. With genetic engineering, you’re moving a very specific gene. Testing it for safety is relatively easy and straightforward, certainly more so than testing an entire organism bred by more conventional methods. I think because a lot of laymen don’t understand what genes are or how they work, they don’t trust what we’re doing. But plant geneticists understand these systems extraordinarily well and can test the safety of the gene or the resulting product fairly easily. Getting that across to the general public is the real challenge.

Enright: Today’s GM products are the most researched and tested agricultural products in history—and not just by industry. Health and science organizations around the world, including the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), National Academy of Sciences, World Health Organization and European Food Safety Authority, have widely rejected claims of health concerns and determined that food derived from genetically engineered ingredients is as safe and nutritious as food derived from other production methods, such as conventional or organic. Real-life experience is also on our side. For more than 16 years, billions of humans and livestock around the world have eaten GM foods with no scientific evidence of health problems related to their consumption.

Why does agriculture generally oppose GM labeling requirements?

Conko: We don’t oppose labeling. We oppose laws that force producers to put scientifically irrelevant information on labels. There are lots of breeding techniques used to change the genetic makeup of plants and animals, and some of these are actually far more invasive or disruptive than genetic engineering. The FDA’s current policy requires producers to say on their labels any time a food has been changed in a meaningful way, such as fewer nutrients or an added allergen, and to say what’s been changed. But the labeling advocates seem to only be interested in putting a label on genetically engineered plants that just says they’ve been changed but not how, which doesn’t make sense if their stated purpose of giving consumers information and letting them choose is truthful. I would argue that the FDA’s current policy combined with a voluntary labeling system for producers who want to tout the “GE-free” status of their products is far better.

"Real-life experience is also on our side. For more than 16 years, billions of humans and livestock around the world have eaten GM foods with no scientific evidence of health problems related to their consumption."

Cathleen Enright
Enright: When my daughter was young, she suffered from an allergy to soy, so I know firsthand the importance of food labels. It’s critical that labels are factual, verifiable, understandable and not misleading. Any food, including GM food, should be labeled if it raises a safety or health issue, like the presence of an allergen. But we cannot support the mandatory labeling of safe and nutritious GM food just because the food on the supermarket shelf was produced using genetic engineering. Labeling for the presence or absence of GM ingredients is best left to the marketplace, where companies use voluntary labels such as “certified organic” or “non-GMO” to promote their products.

What are the key benefits of GMOs in agriculture?

Conko: GM agriculture enables growers to produce more food with fewer inputs, which results in a cheaper, more abundant and more varied food supply. We’re currently using one-third of the world’s land surface to produce food. If we reverted back to 1950s’ technology, we would use two-thirds of the world’s land surface area to produce the same amount of food. In the last 60 years, we have more than doubled global agriculture output while using less land because of modern agricultural technology, and not just GM technology. Advanced farm machinery, synthetic fertilizers and agricultural chemicals, including insecticides and herbicides, have all contributed. Everyone benefits because agriculture has a much smaller environmental footprint.

Enright: We’ve barely scratched the surface on the positive impact of GMOs. Currently, many of the benefits accrue directly to growers: producing more on less land, using fewer inputs and spending less time on their tractors. Society benefits indirectly because the technology helps combat deforestation, reduce farm runoff and decrease carbon dioxide emissions. With newer agronomic traits being developed for more efficient nitrogen usage, drought tolerance, flood tolerance and increased plant yield, we’ll continue to see the economic and environmental benefits multiply.

In the end, we have to keep telling our story. With the realities of extreme weather, population growth and malnutrition, there is a lot more we can and must do to improve agriculture, increase access to affordable and nutritious food, and ensure we have a healthy planet to pass on to future generations.