Farmers provide pivotal role in educating consumers about genetically modified organisms
Cheyenne – Wyoming Farm Bureau members came together on Feb. 25-26 for the organization’s annual legislative meeting, where they heard from a variety of speakers.
Western Sugar Cooperative Research Agronomist Rebecca Larsen was on the group’s agenda for the event. Larson looked at the impact of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and the public’s perception on GMOs.
“We don’t have to look far on the internet to find a lot of negative publicity about GM crops,” Larson said. “While we are busy farming food, a number of anti-GMO organizations are busy farming fear. They are trying to convince the American public that GMOs are unhealthy and bad for the environment.”
Larson explained that anti-GMO organizations are funded by several methods.
“The first is through organic industry,” she said. “It’s been a big deal for them to get people to derive value from organic products, so they’ll pay three times the premium for it.”
Additionally, anti-GMO organizations scare consumers into believing that GMOs are harmful.
“The Center for Food Safety is the most aggressive anti-GMO organization in North America,” Larson continued. “They file so many lawsuits on behalf of the American public, and whether they win or lose in these fear campaigns, our tax dollars go to pay their lawyers.”
She added, “Unfortunately, these campaigns are working.”
While campaigns against GMOs are working, data from Pew Research shows that there is stronger consensus for the safety of GMOs among scientists than the fact that humans are responsible for inducing climate change.
“We can’t just trust scientific consensus when it fits our ideology,” Larson said. “We need to believe it all the time. Consensus doesn’t come about overnight. It evolves over time as experts get together, talk and challenge one another on different principles to come to conclusions about safety.”
The biggest gap in what the American public believes and what scientists believe relates to GMOs.
“Only 37 percent of the American public thinks that GMOs are safe to eat, whereas 88 percent of scientists feel they are safe to eat,” she said.
There are also efforts within the American public to mandate labeling of GMOs, and Larson explained that surveys that show Americans are in favor of GMO labeling are often skewed.
“When surveys ask about GMOs, they ask, ‘Do you want to see GMOs labeled?’ An overwhelming number of people say yes because they don’t understand it,” she continued. “However, Rutgers University did a study where they asked, ‘What would you like to see on your food labels that currently isn’t there?’ Only seven percent of respondents voluntarily said GMOs.”
Later in the survey, when asked if people wanted to see GMOs labeled, 88 percent of people answered yes.
Oklahoma State University built on the survey with their own research. The survey showed that 82 percent of respondents wanted to see GMOs labeled.
“They followed that up by asking how many people wanted to see DNA labeled,” Larson explained. “Eighty percent of those respondents wanted to see DNA labeled. Everything contains DNA, but the American public is so misinformed about the basics of biology.”
Coming from farmers
Larson noted that the information from consumers means that more advocacy is necessary.
“Everyone needs to realize that farmers are the second most trusted source of information in the eye of Americans, with the number one being physicians,” she said. “The voice of farmers is very powerful, and Americans want to hear their story.”
While farmers don’t have the time to read every GMO study out there, she said that farmers see the benefit of GM crops every day.
“Farmers know that they are using 50 percent as much fuel and 30 percent less water than with non-GM crops,” Larson explained. “These are important things to realize.”
Focusing on points
While farmers don’t have time to memorize hundred of studies, Larson said that Western Sugar Cooperative encourages its growers to focus on a few simple points.
“When we think about sustainability, we need to realize that farmers are the environmentalists,” Larson commented. “We made a list and counted over 25 different environmental benefits from reducing use of herbicides, as well as the impacts of soil health and water usage.”
Over the last 10 years, she added that producers are producing the same amount of sugar on 30 percent fewer acres because of the increase in productivity.
“We’ve also had fewer crop losses,” Larson explained.
GMO technology also allows more focused weed control and pest control, as well as use fewer on-farm fungicides and insecticides.
“Our farmers release 83 percent less carbon dioxide from the soil than we do with conventional sugarbeets,” she added. “When they looked at organic production, they found it was five percent worse than conventional.”
Larson continued, “The environmental impact of using glyphosate-resistant sugarbeets is over 90 percent lower than using conventional beets.”
Many people also focus on the idea that glyphosate causes cancer, as was indicated by the International Agency on Cancer Research (IARC).
“IARC says glyphosate probably causes cancer,” Larson said. “However, their own monograph said they don’t have evidence of that happening in humans.”
While IARC is a part of the World Health Organization (WHO), WHO does not agree with the IARC ruling.
“IARC is one of four scientific research bodies that support WHO,” Larson commented. “The other three don’t agree with IARC, so WHO still says glyphosate doesn’t cause cancer.”
At the same time, Larson emphasized that IARC also classifies eating French fries and pickled foods, using lotion containing aloe vera and using a cell phone is in the same category for likelihood to cause cancer as glyphosate.
“Glyphosate is less likely to cause cancer than being exposed to the sun, drinking a cup of coffee, drinking a beer or eating bacon,” she said. “We can’t pick and choose our science.”
Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.