Changing minds about GMOs

By Joan Conrow

April 5, 2018

A message out of the blue from a far-flung family member revealed an archived text conversation —and with it, the 180-degree shift in my thinking around GMOs.

It went like this:

Him: In 3 or 4 sentences can you tell me the worst aspects of GMO foods? I’m still not convinced on this matter.

Me: Some people fear the foods will cause allergies and health problems, others worry about the increased use of pesticides associated with GMO crops, and still others fear chemical companies gaining a monopoly over the food supply by controlling seeds. My main concern is with possible environmental impacts as these engineered organisms are released into nature, such as the salmon engineered to grow super fast possibly wiping out natural salmon.

Him: I agree completely. But what about Norman Borlaug who I thought created GMO wheat which saved billions of lives in India & China? Any comment on him?

That’s where it ended — or at least that thread. In the four years since, I’ve learned that neither of us really knew what the hell we were talking about. Though I, as the first reporter to cover the GMO issue in Hawaii, sure thought I did.

I now know there is no GMO wheat and that Borlaug’s “Green Revolution” did indeed save upwards of a billion lives, but it started in Mexico before spreading to India and Pakistan. It would take a while longer to reach China. And anyway, all of this was done well before humans figured out what bacteria have known for eons: how to shuttle genes between organisms.

The engineered salmon is raised in inland pens, among other safeguards, and has virtually no chance of wiping out “natural” salmon. In fact, it could help protect wild stocks from our voracious appetites while reducing the carbon emissions associated with all the sea-farmed salmon we import. It’s just one of many biotech applications that are helping to reduce agriculture’s huge environmental footprint.

There is no evidence that GMOs are any more or less healthful or allergenic than their non-modified counterparts, as evidenced by more than two decades of widespread GMO consumption. In fact, biotechnology can actually remove harmful things from crops, like aflatoxin from peanuts and mycotoxin from corn.

Similarly, 20 years of production have produced enough data to show that pest-resistant Bt corn — perhaps the most reviled crop in anti-GMO circles — has resulted in higher yields and decreased pesticide use, while also creating a beneficial “halo effect” for organic crops, in terms of reduced pest pressure. In Bangladesh, Bt brinjal (eggplant) has dramatically cut the use of insecticides. The same is true for Bt cotton in Burkina Faso and India.

As for chemical companies gaining a monopoly over the food supply and seeds, well, anti-GMO activism is turning that fear into a self-fulfilling prophecy by clamoring for an expensive, prolonged approval process. Currently, only the big guys can afford to play, while countless public sector projects languish. But in any case, some GM seeds, like Golden Rice, are patent- and license-free, not under corporate control.

I learned all this because events rocked my worldview to such a degree that I began questioning deeply held ideas and beliefs. The catalyst was witnessing — and then personally experiencing — the repressive tactics of the anti-GMO movement, which I’d long supported, as it launched a campaign to end GM parent seed production in Hawaii. That disenchantment led me to an intensive process of soul-searching, reflection and research — not unlike the one that my colleague Mark Lynas, a former GM crop saboteur turned biotech advocate, outlines in his new book, “Seeds of Science.”

Like Mark, I did an about face on GMOs that earned me the wrath of some — and informed the most recent text from my relative:

“Just found out you’re living in Santa Fe, and that you got harassed from the left in Hawaii on your GMO reporting.”

It was accompanied by the laughing-to-tears emoji. And it made me laugh, too, to be confronted with a text time-capsule of erroneous views that I’d once so earnestly believed.

It’s all rather hilarious when you stop to think about it, this tendency we have to cling to our beliefs, even false ones, and our “facts,” even the alternative ones.

In the absence of real knowledge, we rely on personal views, or the guidance of someone we respect, or the ideology of our tribe, which we unquestioningly accept as the truth. Except, it usually isn’t.

As reasonable and thinking human beings, we can change our minds when confronted with compelling new evidence. It’s hard, but possible. And that’s a very good thing, especially for those of us who cherish Enlightenment values and critical thinking.

I’ve also come to learn that GMOs are a stand-in for many other gripes, like industrialization and corporatization. They’re viewed as the nemesis of a simpler, saner, slower way of life. For those who worship the god of organic, GMOs are nothing less than the devil himself. I understand all that, because I felt much the same way just four short years ago.

It’s OK to wax nostalgic for family farms and self-sufficiency. It’s great to want safe food, and a healthy, biodiverse ecosystem. It’s laudable to advocate for social justice and food security. But none of these concepts are antithetical to GMOs, which are simply a crop breeding technology.

In re-reading that old text thread, I was reminded that my errors stemmed from ignorance, rather than malice. That isn’t necessarily true for all who agitate against GMOs, however. Some have deep financial interests, whether it’s promoting a label, a product, lawsuits, or conflict activism, and like all self-interested opportunists, they don’t warrant any slack when they spread lies.

But the majority of those who hold anti-GMO beliefs are uninformed and confused. To reach them, we need to focus on sharing the human stories and compelling examples that can drill through a solidified mindset.

And we have to set the record straight, wherever we find it wrong.

If die-hards can change their hearts and minds, so too can those who are bewildered and uncertain about genetic engineering because all they’ve ever heard is something bad (and invariably incorrect).

This is not about getting everyone to agree, or even about being right. It’s about getting it right when it comes to ag biotech. Getting it wrong causes harm, whether it’s Mark uprooting field trials of GMO crops, Western elitism hindering global access to seed innovation, or me as a journalist disseminating incorrect information. As we struggle to feed billions in an era when climate change is making farming increasingly tenuous, we don’t have much room for error.