Activists thrive when they can perpetuate a pair of public perceptions.

The first is to engage on a controversial subject, ideally one that has complex scientific or technical issues poorly understood by the average person. There’s no shortage of those topics.

The second is the creation of a make-believe majority who can be portrayed as opposed to the industry’s side of the story. If media and policymakers believe there’s overwhelming support for the activist position, it makes their messaging much more effective.

Biotechnology, the application of genetic engineering to develop new food and fiber crops, is exactly such an issue. Few people have more than a cursory understanding of the process by which scientists manipulate an organism’s genome by introducing specific foreign genes, which makes it a perfect candidate to demonize with labels such as “Frankenfoods.”

(By the way, anyone know what was the very first commercial application of GM technology, some 30 years ago? It was bacteria genetically modified to produce insulin needed for the treatment of diabetes).

Secondly, anti-biotech activists have perpetuated the myth that a substantial percentage of people are violently opposed to the use of biotechnology, which inflames their rhetoric and lends undeserved weight to their arguments.

That’s why a recent in-print debate between the organic farming proponents who publish Great Britain’s The Land magazine (sort of a UK Rodale Press) and scientists at that country’s Rothamsted agricultural research station was so interesting. Among the topics discussed—which we’ll summarize below—was an interesting factoid.

Since this debate took place across the pond, most Americans would assume that hyper-sensitive Euros would be adamantly opposed to biotechnology, right? Wrong.

Instead, the scientists cited that a 2012 consumer survey by the UK’s Institute of Grocery Distribution that showed some 51% of consumers neither supported nor opposed genetic engineering, or had yet to form an opinion. Conversely, only 13% of respondents were strongly opposed to biotech, with about 3% strongly in favor.

Those numbers are revealing. Only a distinct minorityof 13% of people—even in Europe—oppose biotech. Those numbers might be even lower in The States, which means that the goal of the larger food industry—producers, processors and marketers—ought to be the creation of messaging aimed at the real majority of consumers: those who sit on the fence, unsure about the impact of a technology they don’t really understand.

Winning the argument

That said, here are three points on which the scientists offered powerful rebuttals to the anti-GM activists, arguments that could and should be incorporated into the industry’s side of the ongoing “dialogue” surrounding genetic engineering issues in the USA.

One note: The reason The Land crossed swords with the Rothamsted researchers was the UK government’s recent approval of an open-air trial of a GM wheat bio-engineered to repel aphids.

  • The Land: Where does Rothamsted draw the line at human interference with natural reproductive processes—or doesn’t it?
  • Rothamsted: We do not seek to interfere with natural reproductive processes. The genetic improvement of crops through conventional breeding is not a natural process [either]. Conventional crop breeding uses mutagenesis, where seeds are exposed to high doses of radiation or mutagenic chemicals to increase the genetic variation for plant breeders to select plants from. Crops developed using mutagenesis are grown by organic farmers today. If GM technology is objectionable on the grounds it is unnatural, it is hard to see why the unnatural process of mutagenesis breeding is considered acceptable for food production in organic farming systems.
  • The Land: Why do we need GM wheat in the UK when we already have amongst the highest yielding wheat in the world, and when the world produces so much wheat that we’re converting it into biofuel?
  • Rothamsted: The wheat we’re developing provides an alternative to the use of insecticides for aphids [to reduce such] negative effects as killing ladybirds. It is sad to hear that UK wheat is being used inefficiently for biofuel when there are a billion people in the world with insufficient food. Currently, food shortages are largely a distribution problem, but in the next 10 to 20 years it is unlikely that agricultural production will keep pace with demand with the impending food, energy and water shortages. New ways of improving productivity and reducing environmental impact need to be found.
  • The Land: In 2000, six modern wheat varieties yielded 10 [metric] tons per hectare. When these varieties were grown organically, the yield fell to less than 4 tons per hectare. Oat and triticale under non-organic conditions yielded 8.2 and 6.5 tons per hectare, respectively. However, the same varieties grown organically yielded 7.1 and 6.7 tons per hectare, respectively. Why such a discrepancy? Wheat bred for non-organic production [is] short-strawed with an open canopy, so it competes less well with weeds than taller oat and triticale. Modern wheat varieties adapted to synthetic fertilizer inputs may also have lost some ability to interact with soil for its required nutrition. [Thus], there is an urgent need to breed organic wheat.
  • Rothamsted: We fully agree there is a need to develop crop cultivars suitable for lower input conditions, and it is heartening to find common ground. The cultivars developed in the Green Revolution only deliver high yields under optimum conditions that include pesticide and fertilizer applications. We are also concerned that natural resistance traits have been lost when crops have been selected in a pesticide-treated background. The forthcoming shortages of food, energy and water in the next 10 to 20 years mean we should not narrow our options but explore all possible avenues. That’s our role at Rothamsted, where the GM wheat trial makes up less than 1% of our overwhelmingly non-GM work.

There you have it. GM technology is no more “natural” than much of conventional breeding techniques, and genetic engineering can play a critical role in developing crops that require neither heavy pesticide nor fertilizer use. In fact, as both sides in this debate acknowledge, biotech research ought to be applied to so-called “secondary crops,” such as oats, barley, triticale, sorghum, etc. Organic or not, the world’s exploding population will need the increased yields those crops ought to deliver, if appropriate R&D were to be funded and applied.

That’s the message the public and policymakers need to hear—loud and clear. ÿ

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.