It was a hot afternoon in California when I attended a seminar at the World Ag Expo last February. The session titled “How to Talk About GMOs in the Dairy Industry,” the session featured Alison L. Van Eenennaam, Ph.D, a cooperative extension specialist at the University of California, Davis.
She spoke in a room full of engaged and in-tuned area farmers about the dark cloud that often hangs over the term, “GMO.”
“I hate the term ‘GMO’ because it’s really ambiguous on what modified means,” she said, describing the term as a method of breeding. Eenennaam referred to studies that showed results that accounted for a rise in GMO alfala, increased yield and productivity.
The crowd in attendance was very receptive to the positive affirmation of the GMO process. It wasn’t surprising to see, yet it was in contrast to what I may see in mainstream medium where buzzwords such as Monsanto or Big Ag strike a nerve with GMO critics and others who warn about dangers of genetic modification.
Eenennaam stood firm in her stance that GMOs are nothing to fear. That’s what makes the FDA decision (as explained in our cover story on page 12) to green light two new genetically engineered foods – potatoes and apples – a game changer. Arctic Apples, under the Canadian brand, Okanagan Specialty Fruits haven’t been shy about their GMO branding and will start to use it as a selling point for the end consumer (i.e., the apples slices won’t brown; no black spots on potatoes). The hope is to take away the negative connation of GMO, then turn it into an advantage.
However, there may be some heavy lifting ahead. In a Pew Research Center survey last January, a vast majority of scientists from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (88 percent) viewed genetically modified foods as “generally safe.” In contrast, 57 percent of the general public thought GM foods were “generally unsafe.”
It brings me back to the warnings I hear about the dangers of GMOs and its accompanying diseases followed by my memory of Eenennaam’s seminar and her cry of “The data doesn’t support it!”
Backed by reports from several associations including the World Health Organization, Eenennaam and other scientists are doing their best to inform the public of the benefits of GMOs, and so is Okanagan. The company has painstakingly described its process and has produced a forum online for any feedback.
With this USDA decision, the GMO debate is moving from the science/data realm into the consumer fray. Whether the consumer “bites” remains to be seen.