GMOs and Public Perceptions: Part 3 (of 5)

I had the opportunity to work with a journalism student from Sheridan College. She asked some really great questions about genetically modified organisms and I provided some answers.

Q.3 What is the Canadian attitude towards GM foods like? In farmers? The agriculture industry? The federal government? Environmentalists? The average consumer?

Whoa. Lots of questions there.

First, it’s really hard to measure opinions and perceptions of GM foods. It is evident, however, that public understanding of biotechnology and genetic engineering and crops is very low.  Consumer preferences of GM food play out in different ways under different survey conditions which speak to “wildly differing results” of studies. Results are a function of questions asked, under what conditions and in what context.  And there always seems to be a marked difference in ‘stated’ preferences (under survey conditions) and actual ‘revealed’ preferences (buying behaviour). This latter sentence probably speaks to your question of how the average consumer perceives and acts with respect to GMO foods.

Farmers? Well, it would seem that farmers like them.  At least those that are not organic (organic growers cannot use GM crops according to the Canadian Organics Standards). Canada now ranks fourth in the world in terms of acres planted to genetically modified crops, up from fifth the year before with Canadian farmers in 2012 planting nearly 29 million acres of GM crops (ref).  Out of a total of almost 89 million acres of farmland in the country, that represents a lot (By the way, farmers that use GE crops also use other crops produced through traditional methods of plant breeding and hybrids, etc.  They have to as it is important to “rotate” crops to manage weeds and to maintain the soil health of the farmland). Other crops grown would be those produced through conventional means (traditional breeding techniques, hybrids, etc).  Currently, ~ 1.7 million acres are attributed to organic production in Canada.

Canada’s economy is primary industry based: mining, oil and gas, agriculture.  In 2012, agriculture directly provided one in eight jobs, employing 2 million people and accounting for 8.1% of the GDP.  In that same year, Canada was the fifth largest exporter and sixth largest importer of ag and agrifood productions in the world.  Ag is important.  And so is any kind of crop variety that can lower inputs and enable producers to manage the land in an environmentally sustainable way.

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Source: http://postalpicture.blogspot.ca/2010/06/harvesting.html

How about government? Different jurisdictions in the world regulate food and agriculture slightly differently.  Unlike the European Union, Canada’s regulations have and continue to be based (mainly) on science.  The Canadian regulatory system is overseen by Health Canada, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Environment Canada.  The regulations here focus on product novelty, not the process used to create the product. Hazard is determined by the ‘trait’ of the product not the way in which it was produced. So a conventional product may be just as likely to be deemed hazardous as anything developed through genetic engineering techniques. Products produced through conventional means have different standards applied to them. Regulatory oversight is much simpler for conventional products because scientists have no idea what the exact genetic changes are in them, unlike in the case of a GMO with a similar novel trait.  In practice, Canada’s regulations are very stringent for GMOs. On average, it takes 13 years and a 140M$ to develop and bring a new GM crop variety through the regulatory system. Over the past two decades, the time it takes to navigate the regulatory process has almost tripled due, for the most part, on the political actions of anti-GM interest groups (see parts 1 and 2).[1]

Environmentalists? Well, I think that we know where the emotive, destructive and politically motivated ones stand on this topic.  Until their attention shifts to the ‘next big donation-generator,’ genetically engineered anything is up for grabs.  I foresee a shift though as we develop crop varieties that have more consumer benefits (nutritional value (like Golden Rice) or reduced transfats or maybe a peanut developed with the allergen knocked out of it… you get where I’m going here). Also, I think that people have to open their eyes up to what is going on in developing countries.  Many of the challenges that those people face in terms of food production can be addressed with pest-resistant, virus-resistant, drought-resistant varieties. Genetic engineering techniques are precise and varieties can be developed quickly without waiting for successive generations as we have to with varieties produced through traditional breeding techniques.

I think that we have to start looking more ‘holistically’ at ag and food production.  The whole thing is so deeply divided right now.  You are either perceived to be pro-GM and bought wholly by industry or you are anti-GM and are the usual ‘activist suspect’ and wholly anti-GM.  I think that when you get past the politics and propaganda and dig down into the evidence (and the good science) you see that things are not so black and white.  Do we need to judiciously regulate products of biotech? Yes! Absolutely! Do we? YES.  Does it always have to be one or the other? GM or organic? No, I’d say that is short-sighted.

What about developing a genetically engineered crops and plants that can be managed through organic methods and practices? Plausible, no?  All ag is good ag in my opinion.  Whether it is organic, conventional or GM.  I do take issue with how agriculture production and practice is vilified in the media.  The rhetoric just distracts us from the real problems that we need to tackle like waste, storage, hunger, disease, pests, drought, the environment, etc.


[1] And here’s the irony:  Critics often hammer the seed companies about being ‘monopolistic’ (it’s an oligopoly, by the way – 6 big actors).  But guess what? Even with the extension of the regulatory process, the system is no more robust than it ever was. AND because it is so costly and time intensive, the only companies prepared to take on these costs is big ag. Small and medium business can’t engage even if they wanted to.  Can’t afford it.

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GMOs and Public Perceptions: Part 1, Part 2, Part 4, Part 5.

GMOs and Public Perceptions: Part 2 (of 5)

I had the opportunity to work with a journalism student from Sheridan College. She asked some really great questions about genetically modified organisms and I provided some answers.

Q.2 How do anti-GM movements (e.g. Greenpeace vs Golden Rice) gain momentum? Is there any legitimacy to them?

image2The whole ‘momentum’ thing is multi-faceted. Did you know that almost 72% of North American adults have mobile technology and tap into online networks? This is significant when we consider the whole notion of “information” and the “information age.” We look to the Internet and our social media networks to ask our questions, get information.  And there is a lot of misinformation out there.  Especially about farming, technology and food production. The anti-GM movements are really adept at using our networks to circulate misinformation and to feed into our fears.

Factor into this our human cognitive habits:

1)      Humans are conspiratorial thinkers: Public Policy Polling (2013) conducted a survey earlier this year where (among other things) it found that 29% believe aliens exist; 20% of voters believe there is a link between childhood vaccines and autism; and another 14% of voters believe in Bigfoot. Conspiracy theories are a way humans react to uncertainty and powerlessness in our society.  Our brains jump into analytical overdrive … so that we can create a story that we can understand around something that defies understanding.

2)      People are conformists: As human beings, once we glom onto a belief or ideology, it can be difficult for us to move from that path. Our loyalties to these ideologies are communicated and reinforced by people that are closest to us; by those that influence us. The trouble with this is that if we are faced with scientific facts that quite literally shake the ground beneath our fictional ‘sacred cows’ we are more likely to ignore them and move onto the information that validates our beliefs (this is also known as ‘confirmation bias’).

3)      People are pattern seekers:  We humans like to ‘connect the dots’ …from A to B and everything in between. In fact, all animals do this.  This is referred to as ‘associational learning’ or ‘patternicity’.  It is the tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise. This is why we can easily see the man in the moon. Anecdotal association is a form of patternicity. We hear anecdotes everywhere. For instance, “My cousin tried this herb and he was cured of his diabetes.”  But anecdotes are not evidence. And while science and its methods and protocols are only a few hundred years old – superstition and magical beliefs are an age-old part of the human condition. So, anecdotal thinking comes more naturally for people.

4)      Finally, people think in ‘pictures’ as a way to visually organize and process information using parts of the brain that pulls together the emotional and creative. Unlike words that will go in one ear and out the other, Images go directly into long-term memory where they are forever etched. This is why the term ‘Frankenfood’ is so incredibly powerful and visually provocative and why it is so widely used in memes and in anti-GMO narratives.

This is why the anti-GM movement has been so successful.  Actors in the movement understand the human condition, they know how to use the Internet, they recruit celebrities and they leverage mass media to push their agendas. Think about it. Activists can recruit the ‘citizen journalist’ (anyone) and they can get them to circulate the propaganda AT NO COST AT ALL.  It’s a good business model.  Although, I don’t think that most people consider organizations like Greenpeace or PETA as corporations.  But they are highly corporate (bottom line motivated for memberships, donations and they have to compete for those dollars with other NGOs).  These organizations can get away with more (than what we think of as traditional corporations; eg, Monsanto, Cargill, Dow, Bayer, BASF, etc) because they play by a whole different set of market rules.  Gross misrepresentation of facts and fear-mongering are key tactical strategies of any activist movement.  Sadly, NGOs and interest groups can carry out these activities knowing full well that there will be no legal repercussions.  No accountability means no ethical boundaries. On the road to a fictitious town called Altruism, ethics are quickly thrown under the wheels of the Activist bus.  And passengers (the public) are often none the wiser. There have been some real costs to all this (see: https://www.google.ca/#q=counting+the+cost+of+the+anti-gm+movement).

Now, the upside of activism is that it allows the public to voice their concerns and to legitimately lobby for change.  These actions make corporations and government accountable for their actions and activities.  And that can be a good thing and is an important part of democracy and democratic engagement.  But sometimes activities are destructive (GR in the Philippines, GM wheat at CSIRO in Australia, etc) and manipulative (scary memes, bad science trussed up as good science (Seralini study, Seneff study, etc)) and wholly misrepresents things. It’s difficult for most people to distinguish between good and bad science – – – between good, balanced reporting and rhetoric in the media.

We live in a messy social media world where, to me, the democratic model plays out like it’s on steroids.  The truth is that good, reputable science – whether it’s medical, agriculture, or engineering – is not scary or sexy.  It doesn’t resound off walls like a marching band.  And it doesn’t come with press conferences or book and movie releases.  This means that good science doesn’t always make for good headlines or good stories.

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GMOs and Public Perceptions: Part 1, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5.

GMOs and Public Perceptions: Part 1 (of 5)

I had the opportunity to work with a journalism student from Sheridan College. She asked some really great questions about genetically modified organisms and I provided some answers.

Q.1 Why are people worried about GM foods? Are these concerns overhyped?

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Safety seems to be the most quoted reason for people’s concerns over GMOs. But, these concerns (and the arguments) are often unscientific and unsubstantiated. So, yes, most of these concerns are overhyped and controversy is created where often none exists.

We live in a (first world) where we have the luxury (most of us, anyway) of not worrying where our next meal comes from. So, we seem to have more time to dwell on things and our relationship to food has evolved from one that was (at one time) wholly ‘functional’ to one that is more ‘aesthetic.’

We are also generationally and geographically removed from the farm.  Only 2% of North America’s population live and work on farms.  That’s a huge (cognitive) divide.  And that’s a huge problem because that 2% is responsible for the food security of the other 98% plus others in the world.  Almost a billion people every day fight to just get 300 calories a day.  We are not only dealing with a urban-rural divide, we are dealing with a north-south divide where we are completely dissociated from what’s happening in less developed parts of the world.

Here’s the deal on GM foods and genetically engineered crops.  The scientific consensus on genetically engineered crops and foodstuffs is overwhelming.  They are as safe or safer than any other food stuffs on the market.  Many, many studies attest to this (see this and this). They have been in our food system for almost twenty years and there are REPUTABLE and INDEPENDENT organizations from all over the world that have made statements that attest to the safety of GMOs and genetically engineered crops. The problem is is that one-off studies often come up that use anecdotes or ascribe causal links between GMOs and disease where there is only correlation, at best.  These studies gain a great deal of traction in the media because they are “scary”… and those kind of headlines sell (check out an editorial piece I wrote in the Western Producer on this). And, make no mistake, they have political agendas driving them. Those that publish these kinds of studies do so to manipulate the media and the public.  I find that unconscionable.

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GMOs and Public Perceptions: Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5.