The group may be called GMO Answers, but members tend to agree – the questions are just as important.
“Ask us anything,” says Fran Castle, global brand management senior manager with BASF.
To spark more questions – and answers –GMO Answers decided the group needed to show up in “unexpected places.” They made good on that promise earlier this year by participating at SXSW, a conference much better known for showcasing technology, music and entertainment than farming.
That may have actually played to GMO Answers’ advantage, however. The group’s exhibit included several dozen live corn and cotton plants. That stopped more than a few people in their tracks, explains Indiana farmer Brian Scott.
“They just had to come over and touch it,” he says. “They were excited to see it. Some were even taking selfies with the plants.”
Scott and Castle were among the GMO Answers ambassadors who engaged with curious SXSW attendees interested in learning more about GMOs. So was Dan Hansen, a fifth-generation farmer, as well as a communications consultant with DuPont Pioneer’s visitor and stakeholder outreach team. He says the trip was surprisingly positive.
“I really enjoyed my experience,” he says. “I had prepared for negative reactions, and we really didn’t get that. It’s critical we continue to open up and show transparency.”
At SXSW, Hansen performed a DNA extraction from strawberries – a trick he done several times for student groups visiting Pioneer. It’s a simple process using regular household items such as shampoo, salt, a coffee filter and rubbing alcohol to isolate the DNA. Strawberries work well for this process because the DNA can be seen with the naked eye, he says.
You can watch an example of Hansen’s demonstration in the video below.
“That really starts a bigger conversation about what we’re doing and how we take DNA sequences and insert them into a plant,” he says.
A lot of people who think GMOs are bad have trouble articulating why, notes Scott.
“They’re just bad because I read it on my Facebook feed,” he says. “We would get a lot of comments like that.”
Meantime, the width and breadth of information (and misinformation) readily available online has generated more than a few wild GMO conspiracy theories, adds Vance Kramer, research scientist with Syngenta.
“There are a lot of science fiction ideas about how this stuff works,” he says.
Internet experts sometimes earn that status for the wrong reasons, Castle adds.
“Just because you’re louder doesn’t mean you’re correct,” she says.
That’s exactly what makes these types of transparent dialogues with consumers so important, Hansen says.
“As an industry, we have to admit we haven’t always done a great job explaining what we do, how we do it, and the responsibility around that,” he says. “We like to sit around and say science will prevail in helping the public accept these technologies. But we all recognize today that doesn’t always work. It takes an open, honest conversation instead.”