GMOs Facts vs. Myths

GMOs Facts vs. Myths

By Justin Starr

by: Justin Starr, PreScouter Staff Scientist

Problem: Public Concern About Genetically Modified Organisms

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) represent a crossover between agriculture and biotechnology. By modifying the genetic makeup of crops, it should be possible for humankind to grow crops that are salt-tolerant, pest-resistant and high in nutrient content. Crops like tobacco can be modified to produce antibodies for illnesses like cancer, and provide a route to rapidly produce life saving vaccines.

Yet, in the public consciousness, GMOs are not seen as miracle products. Instead, the public derisively calls the GMOs “frankenfoods”. Companies found to be using GMOs are often boycotted, and street protests against genetically modified foods have been seen on the streets of cities in both the United States and Europe.

This results in several important questions. Why are many consumers so opposed to GMOs? What can companies do to overcome this?

Public Opinion: Facts vs. Myths

As with any polarizing issue, debate over GMOs can quickly escalate into rounds of name-calling, accusations of bias, and questions about whether or not scientists are performing research in an independent way. Both the pro-GMO and the anti-GMO camps accuse their counterparts of trying to mislead the public about the life-changing benefits or death-hastening risks of genetically modified food. Conventional wisdom blames public opinion on the use of inflammatory rhetoric. As a result, many companies are afraid to disclose their use of GMOs in consumer products.

The reality is more complex. Dr. Claire Marris, a Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Social Science, Health and Medicine at King’s College London, released a detailed report on public perceptions of GMOs. Dr. Marris found that many members of the public approach the issue in a reasoned way, and desire transparency in the use and integration of GMOs. Further, consumers want to see evidence that potential risks have been investigated adequately, due to previous cases of exposure other previously “safe” products that had serious medical side effects (asbestos, DDT, thalidomide, etc.).

Case Study: California Proposition 37

Unfortunately, few product development teams have heeded Dr. Marris’s findings. Instead of treating the public as a volatile mass, and disguising the use of GMOs in food, companies should treat consumers like stakeholders and enter into a genuine debate. There is enormous potential for an agribusiness to sustain a first-mover advantage by openly disclosing plans to use GMOs in products and engaging the public in the decision-making process. Companies should spend less time opposing GMO labeling regulations, and embrace transparency.

The impetus for open dialogue has only increased since the Internet has drastically expanded public access to information. Companies who lobby against labeling regulations and refuse to confirm or deny the use of GMOs can quickly become public pariahs. General Mills, for example, donated over US$1 million in order to fight California’s Proposition 37, legislation that would have required companies to label foods containing GMOs.

Disclosure of lobby efforts quickly turned public opinion against General Mills, with outraged individuals targeting the Cheerios brand. General Mills was not alone: not a single user of GMO products in foods supported Proposition 37, while companies like Kraft, Nestle, Hormel, and Kellogg donated thousands to defeat the legislation. Although Proposition 37 was defeated, consumers were left wondering what exactly companies were trying to hide about GMOs. By assuming the ignorance of consumers, the food industry missed a crucial chance to shift the GMO debate out of the realm of mudslinging: something it could have done by proposing alternative forms of public debate, disclosure and involvement

What is to be done? Lessons from Other Industries

Other industries offer evidence in support of a more proactive approach to public engagement about controversial issues. A case in point is the Rio Tinto Group, an international mining conglomerate. As many of Rio Tinto’s mines were developed in an era before modern environmental and safety regulations, the company was often decried for shirking environmental and societal responsibilities: a chorus that reached a peak with an armed uprising that resulted in the seizure and closure of the Bougainville Copper Mine in Papua New Guinea in 1988.

In the 1990s, Rio Tinto underwent a transformative change, during which time the company began to incorporate stateholder engagement and social responsibility into its corporate mission (see: The Way We Work). Rio Tinto realized that negative public opinion and stakeholder opposition represented serious costs that the company had failed to recognize. Lawsuits opposing a mine can delay resource extraction for decades, costing the company millions in lost revenues. By engaging the public in the decision making process and allowing for meaningful stakeholder impact, Rio Tinto has seen a reduction in lawsuits, positive public opinion, and mines achieving production in years rather than decades.

The Ridgeway Gold Mine in South Carolina presents a salient example. When Rio Tinto / Kennecott sought to develop a gold mine, local citizens developed an oppositional group and sued the company to prevent the mine from becoming operational. Mine executives met with the citizens group, allowed a citizen oversight panel to conduct quarterly inspections, and opened its operational plans to a public review. These actions enabled Rio Tinto / Kennecott to settle their lawsuit and turned many of the citizens who lobbied against the mine into its strongest supporters.

Opportunities in the Agribusiness Space

Imagine the advantages that would fall to the first processed food company to openly lobby in favor of GMO labeling. Imagine having a brand that consumers associated with open discussion of information and trusted as much as Tylenol or IBM. No major food company has become that brand. There is still ample opportunity in the agribusiness sector for someone to step up to the plate and facilitate an open discussion on the use of GMOs in consumer products. While any first-mover will likely be targeted by opponents, openness and a willingness to share data will likely yield incalculable rewards in the public arena and lead to broader public acceptance of GMOs.

Study about public perceptions: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1093/embo-reports/kve142/full

Information about CA Prop 37: http://ballotpedia.org/wiki/index.php/California_Proposition_37,_Mandatory_Labeling_of_Genetically_Engineered_Food_%282012%29

Overview of the Bougainville Crisis:

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/030142079190027S

Rio Tinto Publication: The Way We Work

http://www.riotinto.com/documents/The_way_we_work.pdf

Photo courtesy of dollarphotoclub.com

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