Are former critics changing attitudes toward GMOs?

By Agri-Pulse staff

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, June 4, 2014 - In the past six months, major publications including the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Oregonian and Scientific American have published editorials supporting genetically modified crops and opposing mandatory labeling of foods made with genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Just this week, the Washington Post published an editorial on GMO safety and the potential of GM crops to help address global food security issues.

Jon Entine, executive director of the Genetic Literacy Project, said it all points to this conclusion: “The debate over GMO safety is really over.” Now, he said, the focus should be on concerns about chemical use and other “legitimate” areas of debate.

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“Let's face it: Most journalists are liberal,” he said. “And the tide has turned among the liberal establishment. It's going to be harder and harder for anti-GMO forces to get support among legislatures.”

If more traditionally left-leaning institutions support the technology, “It's going to be easier for leftwing legislators in various states that want to side with the science to side with the science,” he said.

 
Greg Jaffe, with the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said the editorials are not a surprise, given the number of newspapers that came out against the California proposition to label GMO foods in 2012. However, he said some editorial writers for publications with a largely liberal subscriber base have recently shown a willingness to go “beyond the rhetoric” of the safety debate.

“There's strong scientific consensus that [GMOs] are safe,” Jaffe said. “But I think they're trying to get away from sensationalism on both sides.”

In The Atlantic, Molly Ball recently published a long article exploring the politics that surround the GMO debate.  “Across the country, an aggressive grassroots movement is winning support with its demands for GMO labeling. If only it had science on its side,” reads the tagline. 

National Geographic, in its food issue, was careful to draw from both sides of the issue. “Unfortunately, the debate over how to address the global food challenge has become polarized, pitting conventional agriculture and global commerce against local food systems and organic farms. But it needn't be an either-or proposition,” the publication states. “Both approaches offer badly needed solutions; neither one alone gets us there.”

Brooke Borel suggests in Modern Farmer that “despite the gridlock in the GMO debate, there are hints that it may be easing.” She points to a comment by Mark Bittman in the New York Times, recognizing that “the technology itself has not been found to be harmful.”

Cathy Enright, the executive vice president for food and agriculture at the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), said she believes the public debate around GMOs is becoming more nuanced. “Safety is falling away as the point of discussion, and other aspects of biotech are being taken up,” she said.  

“In the last year or so we've seen increasing coverage of the beneficial aspects of biotechnology,” Enright said, adding that shifting consumer perceptions would take time. “We're certainly watching that conversation, and we're happy to be observing that the more people hear about it, the more nuanced their positions become.”

Entine noted that even if a shift among media and food writers is evident, the general public is not yet convinced that GMOs are safe, or more often, is not familiar with GMO issues at all. 

In the most recent development in the GMO political debate, voters in two Oregon counties last month passed bans on cultivation of GMO crops.  And although high-profile state ballot initiatives to label foods containing GMOs have failed in Washington and California, Vermont became the first state to pass a labeling law in April. Connecticut and Maine also have labeling laws, though they only go into effect if and when surrounding states also pass similar laws.

Reps. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., and G. K. Butterfield, D-N.C., introduced a bill in Congress that aims to stem the tide of state legislative efforts to mandate labeling of food products containing genetically modified ingredients.  The “Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act” is supported by the Coalition for Safe Affordable Food, including the Grocery Manufacturers Association.

According to the 2014 International Food Information Council survey on “Consumer Perceptions of Food Technology,” while a majority of Americans continue to support the FDA's labeling policy for food produced through biotechnology, the number of those opposed to the policy has increased since 2012.

According to the survey, 63 percent of consumers support the FDA's current policy, which calls for labeling only when biotechnology substantially changes the food's nutritional content, or when a potential safety issue is identified. However, 19 percent voiced opposition, compared to 14 percent in 2012.

A Rutgers survey published last fall found that awareness of GM foods is low. “And so perhaps not surprisingly, very few people volunteer that they are interested in GM food labeling information if they are not specifically prompted to think about them,” the researchers said in their conclusion.

“Most Americans appear to have some negative feelings about GM foods,” according to the report. “As a result, when asked directly if they think GM food labels should be required, nearly three-quarters of Americans agree.”

Entine said the GMO issue will remain controversial for years to come, and it's “almost inevitable” that a large state like Colorado or Oregon will pass a mandatory labeling law.

“And it's going to set up a huge legal battle…I'm confident the courts in the United States will reject mandatory labeling,” he said. “There will be a lot of rancorous debate…But little by little the ground is shifting underneath.” 

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