Talk Personal About GMOs

April 1, 2014 09:14 PM

Use a story from your life to relate to consumers

This year, Norman Borlaug would have been 100 years old. The Nobel Peace Prize winner’s biotech legacy lives on in his granddaughter, Julie Borlaug, associate director for external relations, Norman Borlaug Institute. She is taking a personal path in advocating ag technology to help feed the world.
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"My grandfather had a lifelong passion for feeding the hungry and miserable ... and he never faltered," Borlaug said at the Bayer CropScience Ag Issues Forum, ahead of the 2014 Commodity Classic in San Antonio, Texas. "First and foremost, he was a scientist. He was known for being bold and quick to act. He was fierce on innovation. He was a supporter of biotechnology, just as I am.

"However, he was not the best communicator," Borlaug notes. For example, when explaining what a genetically modified organism (GMO) is, her grandfather once said GMOs are not witchcraft. 

"Why would you start a statement with a negative?" Borlaug asks. "We used to think we could win the day with science alone and scientists doing the talking, but the reality is we need to change the way we talk about technology in agriculture."

More Emotion. In the past, the ag industry’s arguments to the general public about biotechnology have been defensive instead of engaging. "The public feels we are adopting biotech for the benefit of big ag. They believe food is grown in the grocery store, and they have never seen a shortage in their lifetime. We can’t be defensive about their lack of knowledge," she says.

She suggests farmers take a more emotional approach. Talk about how biotechnology helps with disease, reduces costs and provides a better product, Borlaug says. Talk about drought and how new technology saves water and helps produce a crop that might not be grown without it. 

"I like to give the story of golden rice in Asia and how this rice with vitamin A in it prevents millions of children from going blind each year," Borlaug says. "Do GMO opponents really want to see children go blind?"

Duane Hobbs, a Syngenta sales representative in Pennsylvania, spends a lot of time discussing GMOs with nonfarm consumers. He spoke at an Extension field day recently and encouraged farmers to put themselves in the shoes of their nonfarm neighbors. Genetic modification scares people because it uses high-level science to affect the food they eat every day, he says. Show respect and offer to take the person’s question to experts to reach an understanding of GMOs without squabbling, he says.

He noted that Americans are affluent consumers, which means they use computers in buying decisions. Hobbs criticized incorrect material on the Internet for stoking fears about bioengineered food.

That’s why Borlaug tells people in personal conversations what GMOs are not—they are not processed food; they do not cause obesity. "I tell them there is no such thing as certified organic," Borlaug says. "They are shocked."

In essence, Borlaug continues her grandfather’s work to reduce hunger and poverty by challenging conver­sations on technology in agri­cul­ture. She wants farmers to use emotion and tell it straight to the public.

"Scientists in ag and the media need to be clear about GMOs," Borlaug adds. "We must remember we are talking to those who have never been on a farm."

"The entire world comes to the U.S." to learn sustainable agricultural practices, Hobbs says. "Don’t bow your head when someone asks you about GMOs. Be proud." 

For more coverage from the Bayer Ag Issues Forum and Commodity Classic, visit






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