Open dialogue key to changing conversation about GMOs

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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, Cathleen Enright, Ph.D., 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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