Genetic Modification, a Hot Topic at Food Dialogues: Part One

Amid the enormous Chicago-based BIO convention, USFRA gathers stakeholders to talk about GM crops and media coverage.

Published on: Apr 23, 2013

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.

(L-R) Emily Anthes, Jerry Slocum, Ron Insana, Melinda Hemmelgarn, Mike Olson share their thoughts on the Chicago Food Dialogues panel.
(L-R) Emily Anthes, Jerry Slocum, Ron Insana, Melinda Hemmelgarn, Mike Olson share their thoughts on the Chicago Food Dialogues panel.

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.

Bob Goldberg, Emily Anthes, Jerry Slocum, Ron Insana, Melinda Hemmelgarn, Mike Olson, Pam Johnson and Steve Smith take part in the Food Dialogues Panel in Chicago, April 22.
Bob Goldberg, Emily Anthes, Jerry Slocum, Ron Insana, Melinda Hemmelgarn, Mike Olson, Pam Johnson and Steve Smith take part in the Food Dialogues Panel in Chicago, April 22.

"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."

Panelists discuss biotech issues at the Food Dialogues Panel April 22.
Panelists discuss biotech issues at the Food Dialogues Panel April 22.

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."

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Hemmelgarn also introduced the idea of a monoculture and its effect on the soil, adding that "organic soils are better." Her statements drew the attention of both farmers on the panel, with Iowa farmer Pam Johnson addressing the monoculture accusation.

"It may look like a monoculture but to us it is not," Johnson began. "The reason you see corn and soybeans is because our climate is perfect for that crop. I'm a 6th generation farmer, and my ancestors went through a lot to figure out which crops work best. There is no more crop that is more diverse than corn. The diversity in that gene pool is a marvel. Corn is a marvel, not something to be looked down upon."

Mississippi farmer Jerry Slocum also had the opportunity to respond to soil conditions, adding that he has been no-tilling for 20 years.

"Our soils are pretty darn good. When we get rains, it's relativity spongy," Slocum explained. "My biggest pet peeve is that people look at me and don't think I'm a good steward. I earn a living from it. I'm going to hand it down. If anybody is a steward of the land, I think I'm one of them. We've done a lot in the last 20 years to be better stewards. The soil we farm today is better shape than it was 20 years ago, better than 10 years ago, better than last year even."

Read part two of the Food Dialogues discussion recap.

For more on the Food Dialogues or to watch the panel discussion, check out www.fooddialogues.com, or catch up on previous Food Dialogues events by clicking the links below.

Food Dialogues: Perceptions, Reality, Media And Marketing

Agriculture And Entertainment Talk About Food