How can we close the gap between scientists and consumers on GMOs?

GMO cornAccording to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center, 88 percent of scientists believe that genetically modified (GMOs) foods are safe to eat. However, only 37 percent of the general public believes GMOs are safe.

That’s an astonishing gap of 51 percent.

In recent weeks, the gap between scientists and the general public on several important issues has come to the forefront of our attention thanks to the vaccination topic. While vaccinations might be garnering all the attention right now, we should be devoting a significant amount of time as to why so many people remain suspicious of GMOs despite overwhelming scientific evidence that they’re safe for human consumption.

Understanding why people remain skeptical of something despite overwhelming scientific evidence can help come up with strategies to close the gap between public perception and scientific reality. A recent editorial in the Washington Post sheds some light on why people are skeptical of GMOs:

The anti-GM movement seems to be fueled by a combination of anti-corporate suspicion, small-farm nostalgia and anxiety about unfamiliar technologies. It raises questions of environmental safety and corporate control as well as food safety. Some would argue that, unlike climate-change denialism or vaccine resistance, it’s harmless even if baseless — who cares if Manischewitz now feels compelled to offer a line of GM-free kosher foods?

Unfortunately, there are serious consequences when the science on GMOs is ignored. The Washington Post editorial continues:

…farmers need to close a 69 percent gap between the crops they produced in 2006 and the food the world will need, given population growth, by 2050.

Though far from the only solution to this challenge, genetic modification can provide seeds that are more resistant to pests, drought or disease and that produce greater yields with less water or in poorer soil. They could be, in other words, one signficant component to avoiding mass hunger over the next generation. Unfortunately, resistance in rich, consuming nations discourages innovation and makes it more difficult for farmers in poor countries to adopt useful new technologies.

You can read the complete Washington Post editorial here.

In other words, GMOs help farmers grow more food on less land using fewer inputs such as water, fertilizer and pesticides in order to meet the demands of a growing world population. Sounds like an easy story to tell to the general public, right? Growing more food on less land is a great thing, especially when considering the nutrition needs in poorer countries.

Unfortunately, that 51 percent gap tells us we’re doing something wrong in how we’re connecting with people about GMOs.

Perhaps GMO skepticism can be traced back to larger issues in the ag communications world?

Sarah Goss is a farmer and CommonGround volunteer from Kansas. She recently wrote that the “feeding the world” and “thank a farmer” mindset in ag communications might actually be backfiring. Instead, farmers need to step off their farms from time to time and tell their own story directly to consumers in big cities, college campuses or in grocery stores.

What farmers find routine — basic planting decisions, routine animal care, common environmental practices like buffer strips — non-farmers find fascinating and want to learn more. Farmers should tell others their basic stories, and be inclusive about it. Goss writes:

It’s time the ag sector adjusts our play book.  We can offer authentic voices that are inclusive of all food choices and farming practices; voices that keep the conversation positive; and credible, real voices of personal stories supported by third-party science that will shift public opinion.

Farming and ranching are noble causes.  We know that.  And it’s time we respond to consumers in a way that make will make them want to buy our products again and again: “I love serving and nourishing you.  Knowing I’ve done that is thanks enough.”

You can read Goss’s full blog post here.

There is no magic-bullet solution for closing that 51 percent gap between scientists and consumers on GMOs. Like Goss wrote, a combination of farmers telling their own story and selectively using science to support those stories is probably the correct, long-term approach.

Or maybe something random will happen that nobody saw coming and that gap will close sooner rather than later. Who knows?

Either way, the gap needs to close. The ag world, the consumer world, the real world will be better off when it does.

— Written by Adam Czech, public relations manager for the Minnesota Corn Growers Association

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