Farmers and scientists speaking in a House Ag Committee subcommittee hearing Wednesday on ag biotechnology said the focus needs to shift to sharing biotech benefits that are rooted in science – not spreading concerns based on unreliable sources.
The committee hearing, chaired by Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill., addressed biotech's perceived role in ag production, how consumers react to that perception in the grocery store, and how consumers interpret news and research on the topic.
In general, panelists agreed there is a missing link between researchers and farmers benefiting from biotech and consumers.
"There is a large and growing number of consumers who stigmatize GMOs in the U.S.," explained Co-Director of Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs and Cornell Professor Dr. David Just.
Just addressed the paradox of consumer associations with GMOs, explaining that consumers often see them as risky – even when GMOs have the ability to limit some other input that is also perceived as risky, like pesticides.
"The industry is partly, if not wholly to blame for the consumer misperception," Just said. "Industry is focused understandably on marketing the benefits to farmers to get them to adopt – consumers often have only a latent understanding of why genetic modifications are introduced into the food supply in the first place."
Just said in his research, consumers select conventional products over GM products when given only that information. When presented with the benefits of the GM product, it's the product they select, he said.
Vermont dairy farmer Joanna Lidback said she sees a similar issue when explaining the practices on her dairy, beef and hay farm. Without biotech advancements, she said, genomic testing, proper medications and tests to keep her animals healthy would be unavailable.
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"We need to do a better job of communicating the specific benefits that we get from biotechnology," Lidback said, explaining that being a non-organic operation allows her dairy to use all methods available to ensure animal welfare – and that should be explained to consumers more often.
Of her efforts to discuss care of animals and use of biotech on social media and with customers, Lidback said that fosters a greater chance that consumers might second-guess information that is not from a first-hand or science-based source.
"We get more believers, we get people who trust me, who trust what we are doing on our farm," she said. "And then maybe when they are looking at other products or other areas of biotech, aren't quite so scared. Big issue is, people are afraid of what they don't know," she said.
GM Labeling and biotech policy
On the topic of GMO labeling and policy, panelists agreed the science shows that GMOs are safe – and can bring benefits to farmers, consumers and the environment. But a failure to communicate that to consumers has resulted in policy efforts that are perhaps misguided.
Panelist Dr. Calestous Juma, Professor at the John F. Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Mass., said this is represented in ongoing discussion about transgenic salmon.
Juma said political leadership has been hesitating on this and other biotech issues and holding back on taking positions that they believe their voters don't support.
"As the voice against biotech increases, leadership becomes less and less willing to make tough decisions," he said.
Related: Farmers Talk: GMOs and GM Labeling
GMO labeling is another example. A mandatory labeling bill in dairy farmer Lidback's home state has shown that consumers don't have all of the information.
"We in agriculture have failed to connect to the public and this has allowed misinformation to spread," Lidback said.
"People talk about a right to know and that's why they need a mandatory label on GMO products. "The information is already out there. They don't need to wait for a label."