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What Health and Wellness Dietitians Want to Know About GMOs and Biotechnology

Michael Stebbins
May 7, 2019

Recently, BuildUp Dietitians, along with GMO Answers and Arctic Apples, convened a group of registered dietitians at the Sports, Cardiovascular, Wellness and Nutrition (SCAN) practice group symposium in Phoenix, AZ. We wanted to find out what dietitians in the health and wellness space thought about GMOs and biotechnology. We also wanted to be able to answer their questions, and the questions of their clients. We had a great discussion about their concerns and issues, and we learned a great deal listening to them. Hopefully, the attendees learned a lot about the technology as well.

Here’s what the organizers felt were their main takeaways from the event:

Leah McGrath, BuildUp Dietitians:

Prior to the event a short survey was sent out to potential dietitian attendees to get an overview of their knowledge base on biotechnology as well as what concerns and questions might need to be addressed during the dialogue session.

Key Survey Results:

  • Uncertainty with terminology many indicated they were unfamiliar or could not define:  CRISPR, hybrid, genetic engineering and bioengineering.
  • Chief Concerns of Dietitians:  pesticide use, corporate control, and environmental impact.
  • Concerns of their customers/clients:  health and allergy related potential implications of GMOs.
  • Resources: Surprisingly, many dietitians cited the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) as a resource for information, despite the fact that AND has not released an official position on genetic engineering, nor do they have resources easily available to dietitian members.

Being able to evaluate the survey prior to the event was beneficial in planning on how to lead the dialogue session, preparation for potential questions, as well as what materials to bring and resources to suggest.

Leslie Bonci owner, Active Eating Advice by Leslie, RDN, CSSD, former SCAN chair, and member of the Bayer L.E.A.D. network:

For an ice breaker, we asked everyone’s name, where they practice and their specialty areas as well as what they wanted to get out of the session. Most had favorable opinions about biotechnology, some did not know enough to form an opinion pro or con, one was quite opposed citing concerns about human and environmental health. Interestingly, she asked a lot of questions, had some misconceptions clarified and stayed for the entire presentation.

I brought up the example of the orange industry and citrus greening and the impact on Florida. Many were not familiar with this problem and what the potential impact could be. I also brought up the EWG Clean 15/D dirty Doze list as a way to create unnecessary food fear and create more conflict and confusion in helping our clients/athletes/consumers optimize produce intake. There was also mention of foods that contained GMOs being foods that are overly processed such as desserts, snacks being made with GMO crops (soy, corn, sugar beets).  Many of the attendees said that this was not a worry to them as they tend to not recommend those foods anyway. And a lot of talk of the food first, whole foods approach to eating. As a whole the group wanted resources and advice on how to have conversations on Food and Agriculture and felt that their dietetics curriculum and education was lacking in this area.

  • Michael Stebbins, Director of External Engagement, GMO Answers: What I saw that was many of the questions and concerns that this group of sports, health and wellness dietitians had were the same questions that many people have: questions about basic facts about the technology, questions about safety, questions about modern agriculture and how our food is grown, and how to talk to their clients about this issue.
  • If you’re going to talk to people about GMOs, it’s important to know some basic facts about them.  Like they’ve been on the market for more than 20 years.  And have been studied for about 40 years. And that in the U.S., there are only 10 GMO crops on the market right now: alfalfa, apples, canola, corn, cotton, papaya, potato, soybeans, squash, and sugar beets. That’s it.  There is no GMO wheat on the marketNo GMO tomatoes. No GMO strawberries.  Knowing the basics go a long way in having a conversation about GMOs.
  • Many in the group asked about studies that show that they are safe to eat, if there is scientific consensus on GMOs, and if they have been studied enough. In 2016, the National Academy of Sciences released a report that looked at this, and they concluded that GMO crops are just as safe to eat as conventionally grown crops.  And this post on the GMO Answers website (originally posted at Skepti-Forum) talks about the scientific consensus that GMO crops are safe to eat. And this site talks about the hundreds, if not thousands, of various studies, including independent studies, that have looked at the impact of GMOs and show that they are safe.
  • Many of the other questions people had about GMOs were not really about GMOs, but about our current modern agriculture system. There were discussions about organic food, pesticides, hormone and antibiotics, patent rights, large scale or corporate farms, and human rights issues in agriculture. All of these things are very valid topics to talk about, but they are not unique to, or even really about GMOs, as the SciMoms write about in their post, The Social Consequences of the GMO Debate.
  • Finally, people wanted to know how they could have conversations about this issue. GMO Answers has a resource (with help from the Center for Food Integrity) that has some top-level facts about GMOs on one side, but best practices on how to have a dialogue about contentious issues, like GMOs. Key things to remember include:
  •  Listen without judgement: “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply. Seek first to understand, then to understood.” – Steven Covey.
  • Ask questions to invite dialogue. Acknowledging their statement shows that you heard the question or statement. Ask questions that show you’re working to understand them.Share your perspective through values. Enter the conversation with an open mind. Listen for common ground. Admit when you don’t know. Be yourself and tell your story. Keep it simple. Avoid getting defensive. Know when to disengage. Foster a relationship and offer resources.

Our next panelist will go more into finding shared values and telling your story.

Danielle Penick, RD, creator of Survivors’ Table:
Listening First: We suggested starting out with listening to their client or patient and to ask questions to better understand what specific concerns they have, if any. Often fears stem from issues that are outside of the technology, such as discomfort with big companies, monopolies, monoculture, and the environment or it could be directly related to GMO safety and health concerns. Once you understand what the perceived issue is, only then are you better able to address the underlying cause of concern.

How to Better Communicate the Science: During the ice breaker we heard from many attendees who wanted to understand how to better communicate with the people they speak with when asked about biotechnology. Often from their experience when they presented the science to patients or clients first, that it wasn’t always effective. We addressed some best practices that have been successful for us when having these conversations.

Story Telling: Another effective tool discussed was the use of storytelling, since stories captivate us. Often people’s issues are based on feelings and emotions, rather than facts. If we start with facts more often than not, we lose peoples interest. Stories can help us connect with our patients and our clients and can result in a more effective dialogue.

Common Value(s): An additional recommendation was to find a common value with the person you are communicating with. This helps to establish trust. If your patient or client doesn’t trust you, then the information you give them will likely not be well received. For example, if you both care about the environment talk about that as a focus to your conversation. This can help you better direct them to resources as well. Finally, once you establish a rapport, usually only then will people be more receptive to the scientific facts and evidence you present. In closing, we explained that rarely does one conversation change anyone’s mind. You start by planting the seed and opening up dialogue, but typically it will take multiple interactions and discussions to dispel myths or fears.

While only a small number of attendees completed their post-survey, the general responses were positive.  Most all were complimentary of the event, it’s organization, the resources available.  Some respondents wanted more of an “anti-gmo” perspective as well.  Respondents were appreciative of the information about citrus greening, which some were not aware of.

Overall, the main takeaway from this event is that registered dietitian professionals in the health, sports and wellness space are looking for reliable sources of information on the issue of GMOs, and that the questions they have about them, for themselves and their clients, are much like the questions the general public has about GMOs. All of us involved in putting on the event hope we were able to answer some of their questions, clear up some misconceptions about the technology, and provide some helpful tools and trustworthy resources for them to share with their clients.