The majority of Americans know very little about genetically modified food. They’ll even tell you so: In a poll by the Annenberg Public Policy Center last year, 63 percent rated their understanding of GMOs as “poor” or “fair.” Only 4 percent called it “excellent.”
That’s why Congress is investing $3 million in the Food and Drug Administration specifically to be used for an education campaign. Before the FDA spends the money, however, it’s asking the public for input: This month, it has held forums in Charlotte, N.C., and San Francisco. Online comments are open until November 17.
The skinflint in me worries about this expense: Does a government with a national debt of $20 trillion really need to use its limited resources this way?
The realist in me observes that the spending decision already has been made, so we might as well quit wondering about “whether” and start thinking about “how.”
The optimist in me hopes that the money will do some good.
We certainly have the potential for it. This idea hit home for me last month, when I attended the World Food Prize in Des Moines as a member of the Global Farmer Network. There, I met Motlatsi Musi, a South African farmer.
He said something I’ll never forget: “I have been fighting my whole life for the right to eat.”
As a farmer in rural Maryland, I understand the struggle to grow crops. We have to prepare, plant, nurture, protect, and harvest as we deal with unpredictable weather, threats from weeds and pests, and economic challenges.
Yet we’ve faced nothing like Motlatsi, who grew up not only in poverty but also in a racist system of apartheid that denied him fundamental rights, including the property rights that farmers need for success. In time, he acquired a small farm that he could call his own.
Today, he makes ends meet partly because he enjoys access to GMO seeds that allow him to grow more food on less land. Unfortunately, farmers in many other parts of Africa don’t share this advantage. Their governments have taken their cues from anti-GMO protestors and so they’ve blocked the use of a technology that I take for granted in the United States and which has made a big difference for Motlatsi.
It’s an excellent example of how “First World” disputes can create “Third World” dilemmas: From our position of relative comfort, where few of us go hungry and we don’t fight for the right to eat, we let our ignorance about GMOs imperil the subsistence farmers of Africa.
Yet as we continue to fuss over the pros and cons of GMOs—which is to say, as well-informed scientists describe the pros and scheming activists say whatever they please—we create the false impression that this is actually a debate.
The debate is over. The world’s top scientific groups and regulatory agencies have studied GMOs for decades and they’ve reached a consensus: This food is safe to eat and it’s safe for the environment.
People who don’t know this simply aren’t paying attention. I’m reminded of the famous quip by H.L. Mencken, the Baltimore-based writer who enjoyed a national following in the 1920s and 1930s: “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.”
The FDA’s new program won’t make anybody smarter, but it might help make us better informed. It seeks “to provide consumer outreach and education through publication and distribution of science-based educational information on the environmental, nutritional, food safety, economic, and humanitarian impacts of agricultural biotechnology.”
I’m no marketing expert, so I can’t say whether the best way to meet this goal is with a new website, billboard displays, or a Super Bowl ad. What I do know is that we must shrink the knowledge gap between what science tells us and what consumers believe. Perhaps with its $3 million, the FDA will nudge us in the right direction.
I hope it does for our sake as well as for the sake of Motlatsi and the farmers like him. For us, ignorance about GMOs is an aggravation. For them, it’s a fight for the right to eat.