THE BLOG

What's To Be Afraid of? Congress Talks GMOs with Biotechnology Proponents

07/29/2014 05:05 pm ET | Updated Sep 28, 2014

Earlier this month, a motley group of witnesses were called to testify before the members of the House Committee on Agriculture: a behavioral economist, an agricultural science professor, a Vermont dairy farmer, and an international development expert. Their message to Congress? Let's see what the facts have to say about the benefits of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

As agricultural technology continues to push the biological boundaries of crops and livestock, these developments have received considerable pushback from American consumers, mostly at the grassroots level. Recent "Right to Know" GMO labeling initiatives that have swept through -- but not always succeeded in -- California, Washington, Maine, and Connecticut have brought the controversy to the forefront of national attention.

However, more often than not, America's GMO War has been represented as an unfair battle pitting the majority of American consumers with monster agricultural corporations. For obvious reasons, it has become at best unfashionable to support GM technology (even Subcommittee Chairman Austin Scott (GA-8) himself was absent from the hearing, ostensibly due to a lost voice).

Nevertheless, the voices touting GMOs' potential benefits have been increasing in volume but also in diversity. Of course, the spectrum of GM supporters includes undiscriminating technophiles and GMO producers themselves, but other groups comprised of economists, environmentalists, farmers, agriculturalists, and public health experts are also advocating for GM technology vis-à-vis safety, land use, nutrition, foreign aid, and food prices. Above all, the consensus that emerged from the hearing, confirmed by the House Representatives present, was the singular importance of communication.

Needless to say, notoriously despised "Big Ag" corporations like Monsanto have done a poor job of communicating any of GMOs' advantages (but a very good job of remaining despised). Though scientific consensus still maintains that there are no unique risks associated with crops bred with transgenes that are not also associated with conventional methods of breeding, popular opinion remains unconvinced and generally hostile towards GMOs.

But how informed are consumers' opinions? More importantly, will better information change them?

Panelist Dr. David Just, a behavioral economist at Cornell University, thinks so. His food economics research illustrated that consumer preferences for or against GM foods are more flexible than we might expect. When given the choice between a conventionally bred chicken and its GM counterpart, consumers overwhelmingly rejected the GMO. However, when the same choice was presented in a way that explained the specific reason for genetic modification -- in this case, resistance to disease without using antibiotics -- subjects actually preferred GM poultry, an effect that was magnified among college-educated subjects.

Stories from a small-scale dairy farmer echoed the same message. At the Farm at Wheeler Mountain in GM-hostile Vermont, Joanna Lidbeck and her husband run a 45-cow dairy and rely heavily on GMO corn and soy feed to sustain their business in a harsh economic and physical environment. An outspoken advocate for biotechnology (as both farmer and mother), Lidbeck shared anecdotes of anti-GM hardliners returning as supportive customers to her farm's GM-fed beef and dairy products once presented with sound information on the safety of GM products.

The voices of GM proponents in academia and small-scale agriculture tend, more often than not, to be drowned out in the food fight between grassroots environmental organizations and Big Ag. In this way, the hearing did fulfill its basic role of educating those present with expert recommendations -- occasionally correcting sorry flecks of misinformation from Subcommittee members themselves -- but more importantly, it acknowledged and elevated these voices to Congress' eye level. And in turn, these experts pointed again and again to education and sound information to combat ignorance-driven fear of GM products.

Still, the GMO debate is as contentious as ever. With every comment asserting biotechnology's positive potential, Subcommittee members admittedly braced themselves for a backlash. Not surprisingly, many legislators receive more direct correspondence from constituents about GMOs than they do about any other issue, so, no doubt, this recent hearing at the Hill signals lawmakers' increasing readiness to demonstrate -- as Dr. Calestous Juma unflinchingly put it -- "political courage."

But perhaps the hot interest in GMOs that has been fueling intense political activity at the grassroots level can just as well cultivate the dissemination of both scientifically sound and socially responsible information. Maybe that would pave the way for constructive, productive insights on handling GMOs. Maybe, instead of viewing GMOs as a monolithic hazard and scrambling to amputate it as soon as possible, we could begin to evaluate the risks and benefits of these tools on a case-by-case basis, balancing the needs of people with those of the environment.

Dr. Olga Bolden-Tiller, agricultural professor at Tuskegee University, opened her statement with the ringing words of George Washington Carver from over a hundred years ago, "The day is not far distant when man... will be able to use the tools nature has placed before him from a purely scientific basis, free from all conjecture."

Until then, perhaps we just need to wait a little longer.