Forum attendees seek to find common ground on GMO labelling issue

Written by Mark Hamerlinck

GMO forum

Erica Nelson from the Minnesota Turkey Growers speaking at last week’s forum on GMOs.

I’ll admit my expectations were low as I entered the conference room where dozens of educators, activists, grad students and agribusiness representatives had gathered to attempt to find some common ground on the issue of GMO labelling.

The event, a forum titled “To label or not to label, the GMO food paradox” was sponsored by the University of Minnesota’s Center for Integrative Leadership and Center for Animal Health and Food Safety and was part of a continuing series of forums called Finding Common Ground. Based on past dialog with others on the subject of GMOs, I was prepared for a day of verbal hockey, with both sides shooting sound bites past one another, trying to score points in a nasty game that was always one period away from ending.

Attendees first heard from Jennifer Kuzma, Professor of Public and International Affairs at North Carolina State University. My take-away of her remarks were: 1) Consistently, over 90 percent of Americans support labeling of genetically modified foods and 2) scientific research on the study of GMO safety runs about 5-to-1 on the side of “no negative health effects” from GMOs.

Further, Kuzma said, studies regularly show consumers are willing to pay more for non-GMO products and that support for GMO labeling was shared almost equally by Democrats (93 percent in favor of labeling), Republicans (89 percent in favor) and Independents (90 percent in favor).

I briefly wondered whether any of the consumers polled were aware that science ran 80 percent on the side of GMOs causing no negative health effects, but quickly (and sadly) remembered what ag communicators who have been on the job more than two weeks know: When it comes to communications, emotions always trump science.

Two teams of graduate students then argued the labeling issue in debate form, after which we broke into small groups and were tasked with finding something about the issue on which we could agree, then developing a strategy to move that agreement forward.

Our group figured all sides could agree that before labeling laws could be seriously debated consumers needed to have more and better information about GMOs. In about 10 minutes we developed a strategy of a Land Grant University-run consortium of stakeholders who would develop a well-funded, on-going plan that would communicate only accepted scientific truths about GMOs.

Did I mention we did this in 10 minutes?

Then it was time to share and it was at this point my pre-conceived notions of how this forum would end crumbled a bit. I was pleasantly surprised that the majority of groups had come up with defensible, common sense ideas that most attendees could agree on. The conversations were respectful, and I’d even venture that the mood was collaborative. I’m jaded enough to know that the mood was partially due to our collective “Minnesota Nice” mindset, but what I heard did give me some hope that all sides just might be able to work together to forge an agreeable solution.

We’re not going to get there overnight, but if we continue to try to understand before insisting on being understood, we just might get there.

The Finding Common Ground event was part of a continuing series of forums that have been held periodically since 2010. Find more information about the series here.

Mark Hamerlinck is the Communications Director for the Minnesota Corn Growers Association.

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