As an estimated 20,000 people descended upon Chicago for the annual BIO convention, assembling to discuss all facets of biotechnology and industry, the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance held another of their ongoing panel discussions, known as the Food Dialogues.
Called "The Straight Story on Biotech in Agriculture," the goal of this panel was to talk about how media covers agricultural biotechnology. Moderated by CNBC senior analyst Ron Insana, the panel also included Dr. Bob Goldberg, UCLA plant molecular biologist; Emily Anthes, science journalist and author; Jerry Slocum, Mississippi soybean farmer; Melinda Hemmelgarn, registered dietician and radio host; Mike Olson, radio host; Pam Johnson, Iowa corn farmer; Steve Smith, head of RoldGold tomatoes and chair of saveourcrops.org.
Insana kicked off the discussion by asking whether agricultural biotechnology receives sufficient media coverage. "Yes and no," replied Anthes. "There's one particular development and it's covered a very narrow way. Sort of the 'single study syndrome.' What we're really lacking is when the dust settles from a single study, to then take a nuanced look at the research. But when that study isn't in the headlines anymore, there isn't a nuanced reporting that follows."
Hemmelgarn agreed, adding that while Americans were comfortable with long-form stories 20 and 30 years ago, today they are programmed for sound bites and for taking in information in a shorter and more concise way.
"We in production agriculture would appreciate balanced coverage if possible," Slocum added.
From there, the panel moved on to pervasive myths - in part generated by Hemmelgarn's comments regarding the need for more pre-market testing of GM crops.
Anthes disputed that assertion: "What's really sold to consumers is that these crops are untried and untested. That's just false. There have been 600 studies at last count, and a third were independently funded. So that's 200, at the very least. The European Union has funded research for 25 years on these crops. The notion that there's no data is not true. When people say, 'I don't want these products in the market because they're untested,' that's the most pervasive myth."
And while organic farmers were not represented on this panel, Hemmelgarn agreed to speak for them. "They are independently certified. They do not spray their crops with glyphosate. GM products are not allowed. I recommend people at high risk - children, women of child bearing age - that they choose an organic diet because it exposes them to lower risk."
Her assertion raised the eyebrows of some of her fellow panelists, including Goldberg, who offered a fiery retort: "There is no fact to support you making the recommendation that pregnant women eat only organic. I've never heard so much nonscientific nonsense. What we have been trying to do in the laboratory has been done in a very serious and concerted way. Every single, solitary scientific organization has deemed these products safe for human consumption."