“It’s not what we don’t know that hurts us,” said Will Rogers, “it’s what we know that ain’t so.”
Unfortunately, a growing number of Americans know something that simply ain’t so: They’re becoming increasingly likely to worry that GM food is bad for them, according to a new survey sponsored by Cornell University and recently presented at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In 2003, 27 percent of respondents regarded biotech foods as “high risk.” By last year, that figure had risen to 38 percent.
Granted, these numbers aren’t especially high. A college basketball team that wins only 27 or even 38 percent of its games, after all, isn’t exactly headed for a berth in the NCAA tournament this Sunday [3/12]. More likely, its coach is headed for the unemployment line.
The troubling thing about the Cornell poll, however, is the trend it highlights: Rather than gaining comfort with genetically enhanced food, people are losing comfort. James Shanahan, the lead researcher, described the result: “a slight but significant shift over time toward a little less support and more risk perception.”
Shanahan’s study measured attitudes on a scale from 1 to 10. In 2003, support for biotech food earned an overall mark of 5.6, suggesting that the public was largely undecided on the issue but leaned just a little bit toward favorability. Last year, however, that mark fell to 5.2, meaning that people are still undecided but they’re leaning in the right direction with even less force. Meanwhile, perception of risk inched upward, from 5.2 in 2003 to 6.1 last year.
Some additional details also were interesting: Men, whites, and Republicans tended to have more positive attitudes toward biotechnology than women, non-whites, and Democrats.
I do not welcome these results. Yet they are the reality and therefore they must be confronted. As it happens, the fears surrounding agricultural biotechnology are based on a toxic combination of ignorance, misperception, and sheer fantasy.
The case for biotech is simply overwhelming. There has never been any scientific evidence or scholarly study showing that food derived from biotechnology is harmful to human health. That’s why respected groups all over the planet, from the United National Food and Agriculture Organization to the National Academy of Sciences, have endorsed agriculture’s Gene Revolution.
The people behind the Cornell survey appear to know all this: They certainly aren’t anti-biotech activists masquerading as scholars (as sometimes happens). “Research shows that [genetically engineered] foods are safe and effective,” says Shanahan. “I suspect that the more people are exposed to the news, the more aware they are of biotechnology and, therefore, more supportive of it.”
That’s the silver lining: The more people know the facts about biotechnology, the more comfortable they become with accepting it as an ordinary part of their lives. The Cornell researchers actually discovered that people who pay attention to the news have a more favorable view–which is to say, a more accurate view–of biotechnology than those who don’t. They went on to speculate that the recent shifts in public attitudes may be connected to a decline in the amount of media coverage given to biotechnology.
That’s why it’s so important for the friends of biotechnology to make sure that our voices are heard on television, over the radio, in newspapers and magazines, and on the web. The more we speak out, the more the truth will get out–and the more comfortable people will become with our biotech future.
“Most writers regard the truth as their most valuable possession, and therefore are most economical in its use,” Mark Twain said long ago. His joke is also a warning–or at least it is for those of us who have truth on our side. As we debate the enemies of biotechnology, the truth is certainly our most valuable possession, and we must be anything but economical in its use.
Dean Kleckner is an Iowa farmer and past president of the American Farm Bureau. He chairs Truth About Trade and Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org) a national non-profit based in Des Moines, IA, formed and led by farmers in support of freer trade and advancements in biotechnology.