What’s wrong with the GMO debate

Labels of “non-GMO” products on Whole Foods store shelf in Minneapolis, 2013. (Photo from Environmental Illness Network, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, are notoriously difficult to discuss. The underlying technology transfers genetic material from one organism to another or, in a more recent development, “edits” a target organism’s genes. The aim is often to create animals and plants for agriculture that produce better yields, are more resistant to disease, or tolerant to pesticides.

GMOs are also the subject of much public debate. The dispute includes scientists, politicians, and economists wrangling over the consequences of GM food on food security and the environment.

This wrangling has become, in the words of freelance science writer Emily Waltz, “a food fight.”

Waltz participated in a panel discussion during the New Horizons in Science briefings organized by the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing at the ScienceWriters2014 conference in Columbus, Ohio on Oct. 19. Titled “Navigating a minefield: seeking and telling the truth about genetically modified crops,” the discussion highlighted two perspectives: the press and scientists.

So, what’s wrong with GMO debate—and can we fix it?

Here’s a handy FAQ of the issues in the debate:

1. Scientists are reluctant to get involved.

Scientists often find themselves struggling with how to communicate complicated science without oversimplifying.

For scientists, jumping into the fray can be frustrating, and attempting to make the science intelligible is often construed as oversimplifying the issue.

“Simplification is part of describing research,” said Allison Snow, an ecologist from Ohio State University. But after criticism from the media and other scientists, society might find them “less likely to give press releases before the science is published.”

Engaging in the debate can also require a hefty time commitment. Carol Mallory-Smith, a weed scientist from Oregon State University, said she might spend a month to six weeks responding to media requests after a development in the field. That’s “not something scientists are prepared for.”

For those scientists who choose to engage, their comments are often used as fodder by pundits and loudmouths on both sides of the debate.

“Everyone in the GM debate has felt like a victim at some point,” said Waltz.

2. The loudest voices get the most attention.

GMOs, like gay rights and abortion, inspire a feverish public debate that only further polarizes viewpoints. In this conversation, “the voices at the ends of the spectrum are the loudest,” said Waltz. Those who get drowned out, she added, are scientists whose perspectives are generally more nuanced and in the middle.

While GMOs have outspoken critics, their integration into the food system is increasingly widespread. Since their introduction in 1996, GM corn, soybeans and cotton—the top three GM crops in the US—have taken over 80 percent of land devoted to these crops.

“There is no evidence to suggest from a food-safety perspective that we should be concerned about GMOs,” said Jeff Lejune, director of the Food Animal Health Research Center at Ohio State University, who was not part of the panel discussion.

3. The political and economic stakes are high.

Critics of GMOs assert that seed companies produce genetically engineered crops because they can get rich doing it. Monsanto, the world’s largest seed company, for instance, netted nearly $15 billion in 2013. The financial incentive is obvious, critics claim, so any research funded by seed corporations should be considered suspect.

From this perspective, Waltz said, the funding of GMO research by seed companies signals “an abuse of power and a distortion of science coming from the seed industry.” But she’s found that most researchers who study the genetic engineering of food have some ties to the industry—and it’s not necessarily an indication of wrongdoing. “It’s just who is doing the research,” Waltz said.

Mallory-Smith conceded that while “industry funding doesn’t necessarily mean research is tainted,” it does “buy the question,” along with paying for the work.

Continuing controversy has made interactions between the press and scientists consistently difficult. “There’s a lot of emotional baggage,” Waltz said.

So what can be done?

The debate on GMOs is showing no signs of becoming less divisive. According to Snow: “it’s part and parcel of studying controversial topics.”

The solution, if there is one, she said, “will take intensive reporting, where it might take four phone calls and six emails to write one sentence.” Reporters will need to go back and forth between both sides of the debate “until there are some nuggets of truth that they can all at least acknowledge.”

Karam Sheban works at WOSU radio in Columbus, Ohio, and is a graduating senior at Ohio State University.