What’s a GMO? That’s the question posed by the Jimmy Kimmel show in October to random people, and the answers were not only hilarious, they were also revealing. Although the social media buzz would suggest that people are uneasy about genetic engineering, those interviewed had no clue what a “genetically modified organism” really is. And for good reason: GMO is a meaningless term, as genetic modification is a process and each GM drug or crop or food is unique, offering various benefit and risk tradeoffs.
The same kind of fuzziness surrounds the labeling debate. While as many as 93 percent of people have responded in polls that they believe foods containing GMOs should be “identified”, those results were from classic “push” polls in which consumers were asked various forms of the leading question: “Do you support labeling of GMOs?” That’s a combination of negative stigmatization and suggestive questioning; no surprise, polling experts say, that the percentage of those in support of labeling were high.
What happens when people were not prompted? When asked the open-ended question if there was anything not now on labels that they would like to see added, only 4 percent of Americans even mentioned GM labeling.
These and other surveys suggest that most people have little understanding of the technology or its potential impact, good or bad. Most people’s views range from indifference to a hazy uneasiness. To many GMOs are like a black box, filled to the brim with the unknown. Will it be filled with fears or science?
Yet crop biotechnology—GMOs if you will—is far from an inscrutable subject. The technology is straightforward and well studied. The environmental inputs and impacts have been extensively evaluated. We have close to two decades of data about the economic impact of GM crops—what’s been gained and what’s being lost to antiquated regulations. And we are learning the consequences of anti-technology fever—the ongoing campaigns by activists to demonize GMOs.
Beginning Tuesday, December 3, the Genes and Science launches a 6-part series: GMO: Beyond the Science. Our goal is to try to fill the vacuum created by misinformation and doubt. Each Tuesday and Thursday over the next two weeks, we will present another dimension of the GMO debate. We hope to stimulate a public discussion on genetic modification based on science, not fear.
Cornell University entomologist Anthony Shelton and David Shaw, vice president for Research and Economic Development, Mississippi State University address concerns expressed by some that GMOs have led to an increase in the use of herbicides and pesticides.
Kevin M. Folta, Chairman of the Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida addresses, weighs in on the debate over GMOs and the role that activist groups are having on shaping public opinion.
Harvard Kennedy School’s Calestous Juma, Professor of the Practice of International Development and director of the Science, Technology, and Globalization Project, looks beyond our borders, taking a look at how the debate over GMOs in the western world impacts developing countries.
Peter W.B. Phillips, Professor at the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Saskatchewan, Canada, asks whether regulations are hampering the potential for biotechnology to contribute to address growing concerns about population and food.
Alan McHughen, public sector educator, scientist and consumer advocate with the University of California, Riverside examines the tempestuous debate stirred by crop biotechnology opponents who contend that GMO crops present unique safety and health hazards.
David Zilberman, University of California Professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics assesses the political, economic and regulatory climate and the future of crop biotechnology—and innovation itself.