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Top Five Takeaways, Plus Four Myths That Just Won’t Die, from a Community Dialogue on Food and Farming

Michael Stebbins
April 19, 2019

Recently, I was asked to be on a panel on food and farming by a community college near my home outside of Washington, D.C. The symposium, designed for both farmers and the public, was called, “Food, Farmers, and Community: Opening the Dialogue,” and was put on by the Harford Community College Scholar-in-Residence program, which focuses on the county’s rich food history and land stewardship.

I was invited to speak on the panel “What’s Behind the Label: How Do We Understand the Meaning of Organic, GMOs and Antibiotic-Free Food?” which touched on some of the misinformation surrounding labels and marketing claims found on the foods we eat. I was on the panel with some local family farmers and someone from the state department of agriculture. We each spoke for 10 minutes, and then the floor was opened up for questions and answers. And since I was there representing GMO Answers, I was happy to hear people’s questions and provide them with answers.

Here are my top five takeaways from the day, plus four myths that just won’t go away.

1. Farmers Are Trusted Voices
Local family farmers were the first to speak on my panel. They talked about how they buy genetically modified (GM) feed for the animals they raise, because organic or non-GM feed was too expensive. The audience understood that farmers have many choices to make on their farms, and that they have to choose what works for them. This was a great example of hearing directly from someone who uses the technology explaining why they choose to use that technology. Farmers taking about what and why they choose GMOs makes it easier for me to talk about what I do.

2.  Concerns About GMOs Are Often Concerns About Other Issues
Some of the conversations throughout the day were concerns about “Big Ag,” weed resistance, patents on seeds, monoculture, and farmer choice. All of these are very real concerns, but they are not unique to GMOsLarger, family-owned farms are a trend across all sectors of agriculture, including organic  production. Weed resistance has been a known issue since the dawn of agriculture. There are patents on all types of seeds, plants, trees, and flowers, not just GMOs. All farmers do have choices in what they grow, but sometimes these are tough choices, and that’s not just limited to farmers who choose to grow GMO crops. These factors impact all of agriculture, whether the crops grown are GMO or Non-GMO, grown using conventional or organic farming practices. Consolidation and mergers are an economic necessity in most industries, airlines, financial, entertainment – why should agriculture be any different?

3.  Modern Technology Is Great – Why Deny Farmers?
Another common theme was the benefits of modern technology. So many times, we hear that we should farm more like our grandparents did. One farmer in his 90s told a story of how he used to have to plow using a team of horses and weed by hand. Well, this grandfather (and great-grandfather) was happy to see all the advancements in agriculture he has seen in his life. “There has been a lot of change — we need it,” the farmer said during a panel discussion. From GPS in farm equipment like combines and better weather forecasting to genetically engineered seeds and better crop protection tools, modern technology helps farmers do more with less. People demand efficiency, technology, and modernization in manufacturing, telecommunications, medicine, and engineering, why not agriculture? Why not allow farmer to use the best, most modern tools that are available to them?

4.  Farmers Make Tough Choices Everyday
Virtually every farmer present said they had to make choices in their business.  And they emphasized that it IS a business, just like any other business. They have to think about the cost of raw materials, how much it will cost to get their crop or animal products to market, and what they think they can get for their product in various markets. All business decisions. For example, a farmer on one panel said they fed their animals genetically modified (GM) feed, because using the non-GMO feed would cause the price of their meat to increase to about $20. Once attendees at the seminar understood this, it changed their opinion on how they felt about some of the farming practices. Two of our GMO Answers volunteer expert farmers have  discussed the decisions they make on their farms. Read how family farmers Katie Pratt and Jennie Schmidt have to make decisions based on economics, land, demand, and product availability. Why not let farmers make their own choices for what works best on their own farm?

5.  Know the Difference Between Marketing and Health and Nutrition
Consumers are confused about the many claims on food packages: hormone-free, gluten-free, no antibiotics, non-GMO, humane-certified. And that doesn’t begin to address the issue of whether soy, almond, and oat milk should be allowed to be called milk, or plant-based meat replacements should be allowed to use the term meat. Consumers want choice, but sometimes too many choices can overwhelm. One of my takeaways is to focus on the nutrition label on the back of the package, not the marketing claims on the front of the package. Calories, fat, vitamins, ingredients list – these are all things that are actually helpful in making decisions are the grocery store. Why not listen to registered dietitians and farmers when they tell you that your food is safe to eat?

In addition to some great panels, there were great Q&A sessions. But there were several myths about GMOs that showed up repeatedly as well. Here are the questions that I personally received and responded to:

1.  Myth: GMOs aren’t safe/Haven’t been studied enough/Haven’t been around long enough
Yes, GMOs are safe. Yes, they’ve been studied enough. There are literally thousands of studies showing the safety of GMO crops and food ingredients derived from GMO crops. Yes, they’ve been around long enough for us to know about them.  They’ve been around longer than digital cameras, plasma TVs, electric cars, and MP3 players, and you wouldn’t make the claim that we don’t know enough about them.

2.  Myth: GMOs are the same thing as glyphosate/pesticides
GMOs are not the same thing as glyphosate, Round-Up, or any other pesticide. They are two different technologies that serve two different purposes. It is true that some genetically modified crops are herbicide tolerant, not all are. There are GMOs that are resistant to insects, that fight off disease, that have higher nutritional value, are drought-tolerant, or help fight food waste through delayed browning or bruising.  Two separate types of technology, with different purposes, and one does not equal the other.

3.  Myth: GMOs are killing bees.
Nope, it doesn’t work that way. We all care about bees, and bees (and monarch butterflies)  are having a hard time right now, but it’s not because of GMOs. The primary culprit is believed to be a parasite called a varroa mite. Climate change and increasing global temperatures are also believed to play a part in the struggle that bees are facing. But rest assured, after a few bad years, bees are making a comeback, so that’s a positive.

4.  Myth: GMOs are causing superweeds.
Yes, it's true that weeds are the bane of every farmer, gardener, and weekend lawn connoisseur. But weed resistance didn’t start with GMOs: struggling to manage weeds has been around since ancient times.  And while modern agriculture includes a wide variety of herbicides to help control weed, the issue is not unique to GMOs. In fact, some of the most troublesome weeds are found in areas that have nothing to do with any GMO crops, like sunflowers. Farmers and researchers are always looking to develop new ways to fight weeds and help grow better crops, and it’s important to make sure that new methods and new technologies are allowed on the market to provide more options for farmers to utilize.

To learn more about GMOs, please visit the GMO Answers website and follow us on social media @GMOAnswers.