Pretty easy to pick sides in arguments about genetic engineering.
Most people either harbor fear and loathing over GMOs, or else they just don’t care about the controversy.
Not many people are big believers in biotech.
That reality seems to fascinate social scientists, the latest being one Sarah Hartley, a research fellow in Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Nottingham in England, who along with colleagues from the GenØk Centre for Biosafety in Norway recently published a recent commentary titled, “Why Scientists’ Failure to Understand GM Opposition Is Stifling Debate and Halting Progress.”
Yeah. Those dumb scientists. They just don’t get it.
Hartley and friends identified five requirements for “advancing a responsible debate” about genetically modified crops, two of which were “honesty” on both sides of the debate, and “a recognition of the values of science.”
Okay, forget honesty. There’s no honesty on both sides of any debate about anything anymore.
And certainly, if the partisans on either side of the GMO fence were to agree that the merits of scientific inquiry were going to be the standard used to determine the viability of genetic engineering, then the debate would be over. Because the science is clear: biotech “works,” GM crops are safe and the potential, though as yet unrealized, of genetically modifying the world’s staple crop species to feed the nine billion humans expected to be alive by 2050 is truly phenomenal.
However, anyone who’s bothered to skim even a couple stories about protests over “Frankenfoods” understands that the debate is not over scientific merit — not at all.
First of all, there is a visceral opposition to genetic engineering in some quarters because of who’s involved. When mega-corporations like Monsanto, SynGenta, and Bayer control the products of biotech research — quite ruthlessly, as mega-corps are prone to do — there are going to be strident protests, lots of anger and minimal discussion about anything remotely related to science.
That’s not to say that there aren’t anti-GMO groups raising legitimate concerns about the larger eco-impact of cultivating GE crops. The potential contamination of organic harvests with GE varieties, and the emergence of “superweeds” due to the use of herbicides in no-till farming with Round-up Ready crops are issues worthy of debate.
Nevertheless, the majority of consumers who proclaim their opposition to genetic engineering aren’t animated by rhetoric about biotech’s sci-fi status. Their resistance to GMOs isn’t about the science, it stems from anti-science.
We don’t like what we don’t understand, and for anyone without a graduate degree in science, good luck figuring out genetic engineering.
But what Hartley and many other sociologists fail to recognize is this: The reason that the complexity of genetic engineering has been so effectively leveraged by activists to whip up opposition to genetic engineering in agriculture is because GMOs offer no tangible benefits for the public.
We dislike what we don’t understand — only when there’s nothing in it for us.
The source of protests
For example: Do you know anyone with diabetes? Probably, since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that there are 30 million Americans with the disease. But have you heard about any protests over the use of genetic engineering to produce synthetic insulin? No, you haven’t.
Yet it was the application of biotechnology that made it possible to produce a new type of insulin, similar to what the human body normally produces, using genetically modified yeast and bacteria, including E. coli.
Back in the 1980s!
But nobody wails about the horrors of genetically modified insulin, or demands that drug companies label insulin packages with GMO warnings, because the product provides a tremendous benefit to the millions of patients who depend upon it.
That’s the missing element in the controversy over foods made from GMO ingredients.
As the late columnist Mike Royko once suggested should be the city of Chicago’s official motto, a consumer’s primary question is always, “Where’s mine?”
In other words, what’s in it for me? And with GMOs, the answer is: “Nothing.”
Unless and until the shoppers pushing their carts down the aisles of North American and European supermarkets can identify the clear and compelling benefits of genetically engineered foods, all the sociological prompting on the planet urging scientists to “engage with other stakeholders” in the GMO debate won’t move the needle on the public opinion meter a single millimeter.
The answer isn’t getting scientists to understand the activists at Greenpeace. That’s not their job.
The answer is for biotech’s customers — the food processors of the world — to demand that the science be used to produce value for consumers.
If that were to happen, then GMO labeling becomes something to embrace, not something to resist.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.
With the Senate passing a bill mandating labeling of foods contain GMOs, expect the debate to be seriously renewed. But it’s essential to understand why there’s opposition to biotechnology.