By Joanna Lidback: Barton, Vermont
The federal government plans to spend $3 million in the coming months to educate the public about food that include GM ingredients.
Buried like a kernel of corn in a big grain silo, the new program is a part of the trillion-dollar budget bill Congress approved last week to keep the government running through September.
The idea behind this small endeavor is to close the gap between the scientific consensus on the benefits of GMOs and ongoing public skepticism. Two years ago, a Pew Research Center survey found that although 88 percent of the members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science regarded GMO crops/food as “safe to eat,” only 37 percent of the general public agreed.
That’s a 51-point difference—a yawning chasm between truth and myth.
The budget deal now tasks the Food and Drug Administration with “consumer outreach and education regarding agricultural biotechnology” by touting “the environmental, nutritional, food safety, economic, and humanitarian impacts” of GMO crops and the food they make, according to a report in The Washington Post.
That shouldn’t be too hard to do. The facts are clear and compelling: GMOs are an essential part of agricultural sustainability, allowing farmers to grow more food on less land in ways that are safe for people and the environment as well as economically sensible for farmers and consumers.
In April, more than 50 farm and food groups sent a letter to Congress, urging the program’s adoption to fight “a tremendous amount of misinformation about agricultural biotechnology in the public domain.”
They’re right about the propaganda: Professional protestors routinely spread lies about GMOs. Their agendas have nothing to do with science or safety and everything to do with an ideological hostility to capitalism and mainstream agriculture.
Over the last two decades, GMO technology have become wildly popular among farmers, from corn growers in Iowa to cotton growers in India. In 2016, farmers around the world chose to plant more than 185 million hectares of biotech crops, according to a report issued last week by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA).
That’s more square mileage than there is in the entire state of Alaska—quite a bit more, in fact.
So GMOs are now a major part of ordinary agriculture. Without them, we’d have less food on our plates and it would cost more.
The enemies of biotechnology used to argue the GMO food should be labeled. I always thought this was a little silly, given that the FDA already enforces an excellent set of food-labeling rules and that there’s no reason to warn consumers away from a safe option.
Today, however, the critics can’t even make this complaint: Last year, a bipartisan majority in Congress approved a law to create a tech-savvy disclosure system to inform consumers about GMO ingredients. At the same time, more and more food companies voluntarily label their GMO products. You can find their statements on boxes of Cheerios cereal, Sara Lee brownie mixes, and more.
The makers of these products use these labels for a simple reason: The truth is nothing to fear. GMOs are not merely safe to eat but positively beneficial for the environment and the economy.
Critics of the FDA’s new GMO outreach program have tried to portray it as an unprecedented sellout to food companies. This is ridiculous. The U.S. Department of Agriculture already sponsors a public-education initiative called “Know Your Farmer, Know the Facts.” Around the country, public universities have launched their own campaigns to explain the science behind our agriculture. These are public services with widespread benefits.
I’m open to the argument that there might be better uses for $3 million, such as investing it in seed research or reducing our federal budget deficit.
Even so, the money will go to a worthy cause. It will address the very real problem that not enough Americans understand what GMOs are, why farmers choose them, and why they’re safe to eat.
In other words, it will seek to tell the truth about our technology.
Joanna Lidback and her husband operate the Farm at Wheeler Mountain, a diversified dairy farm in Vermont. Joanna volunteers as a board member for the Global Farmer Network (www.globalfarmernetwork.org).