Understanding Consumers’ Responses to Genetic Engineering

By Ronit Ridberg

This is the third and final part of an interview with plant geneticist Pamela Ronald and organic farmer Raoul Adamchak. They are co-authors of Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food.

How do you respond to people who react so strongly to GE labels and how can we become more scientifically literate?

Ronald and Adamchak believe genetic engineering and organic practices can work hand in hand for sustainable agriculture.( Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

Ronald: I always urge people to get science-based information, of course it’s not so simple. But there are resources: I always try to recommend the National Academy of Sciences because they have reports that have been put out for the lay person. They’ve looked at the subject of genetically engineered crops many times, and I don’t know if you know this, but they recently released a report on sustainability and biotechnology in the United States. It’s a nice state of the art report, and they don’t even address, for example, health issues, because that’s been addressed in many reports before and its broadly accepted by the scientific community that whether you change a plant’s genetic make-up through more conventional approaches or by precise gene insertion, the process itself is no more risky than the process of conventional. But of course what matters is what gene’s being put in there! So I try to get people to look at that.

Adamchak: One of the things that becomes apparent is that there’s a lot of anger that’s generated by popular media towards corporations, especially a few specific corporations. And towards the way corn and soybeans are grown in our country. I think it’s important to be able to separate genetically engineered plants from the corporate issues and the farming issues. Genetically engineered plants are certainly used by those corporations and used in those farming systems, but they’re also used in other crops that don’t have any corporate control, and they’re used in other farming systems where they’re not causing problems.

For example, there is a researcher Matt Liebman from Iowa State, who has put together a farming system that uses genetically engineered corn and soybeans but also increases the rotation with small grains and alfalfa, and integrates use of compost into the system. So you get a biodiverse system, you get a much more economically diverse system. His system focuses on problems of pesticide reduction and soluble fertilizer reduction and economics, rather than just focusing on whether the crops were genetically engineered or not. I think that looking at what the problems of agriculture are, and trying to solve them, is just a more productive way of trying to improve the system.

That’s not to say that there aren’t issues involving the patenting of genes that aren’t problems for our society as a whole. Patenting these days has been extended from the patenting of genes to the patenting of varieties and of germplasm. So it’s not just a problem of genetically engineered crops, it’s a problem for our whole seed and plant propagation system.

If there is scientific consensus around the health issues, what is the objection in the European Union all about?

Ronald: Well, they’re fighting among themselves and the member states can’t agree, The latest I heard was that they’re going to go for a practice where the states that want genetically engineered crops can plant it, and those that don’t, won’t. So for example Spain is already planting genetically engineered crops and they want to plant more, whereas I’ve heard Austria is against it. So whether this is good or bad, I have no idea, but at least it allows countries to move forward in the direction they want.

Adamchak: There’s a good book that was written by Robert Paarlberg called Starved For Science, and he discusses Europe’s view about genetically engineered food, and talks about the effects of the Greens and the environmentalists on the society as a whole. But also the idea that part of it is a reaction against the U.S. since it’s largely been a U.S. technology. His idea too is that they are a more cautious society, and a wealthy society that can afford to import a lot of food if they need it.

In your book you describe an exercise you do with your students, where you ask which genetically engineered products they would accept or avoid. The list includes things like GE peanuts that are less allergenic, the anti-cancer drug Taxol produced from GE corn, and rice that expresses vitamin A, promising to reduce blindness and save lives in developing countries. Can you talk about this exercise?

Ronald: What we try to do in the book is talk about the goals of a sustainable agriculture, and to think about what those goals are. To get people’s minds off dwelling on labels – how the seed was developed or whether it was certified organic or not, because what really matters is, is it sustainable? I guess you could argue that nothing is sustainable, but there are measures of sustainability. So we really try to focus on that.

And I think the magic of the list is it sort of focuses people on those questions right away. So when you start asking the socio-economic questions, and you say something like, “well, mangoes are grown in countries where people have very, very little cash. But they can’t ship the mangoes because they ripen too quickly. So, would you support villagers in a poverty-struck area growing mangoes that can be shipped abroad and bringing in cash to the country?” So when it’s posed like that, people think, “Well, yeah. That’s a good use of genetic engineering.”

And it really depends on how you describe something. If you ask, “Would you support farmers that are growing tomatoes that have been sprayed with dead bacteria carrying a toxin that kills insects?” Most of my students say, “Oh no! Gross! I wouldn’t do that, I would never eat a tomato like that!” But of course, that’s what organic growers do. So often it’s how you describe things that affects people.

I think most people really care about the health and nutrition of their food, whether it’s making big strides for environmental safety and reducing environmental inputs. And those are really important questions. And whether it was made with a particular genetic technique or another genetic technique is usually less important in people’s minds – especially young people. Because they’re not so tuned in sometimes to what the political controversies are. Because I think when people think about genetic engineering, they reject it often on political grounds rather than on humanitarian grounds or on environmental grounds. It’s more that they heard something that frightened them. And it’s not to, in any way demean people’s concerns – because I think people really do care a lot about the environment and they really care about health.

To read more conversations and opinions around genetic engineering, see Using Appropriate Technologies to “Feed the Future”, What Is an Appropriate Technology? and Meet the Nourishing the Planet Advisory Group: Cary Fowler

Ronit Ridberg is a research intern for the Nourishing the Planet project.

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