Another day, another demonization of genetic engineering.

Yesterday, as I sat in on a meeting of a group of highly educated, highly credentialed college administrators and faculty members, the casual conversation that precedes most formal meetings turned to the subject of food. It’s the holiday season. It’s what people love to discuss, especially in the context of “I have to stop snacking/indulging/overeating or else I’m going to regret it.”

One of the attendees, who holds an advanced degree and who can cite statistics and studies until the sun goes down about academic excellence and student success, chimed in with this bromide:

“Well, with all the GMOs that are in our food now, it’s a wonder we’re not all getting sick.”

As if it’s common knowledge, shared wisdom, accepted “truth” that our food supply is contaminated with deadly substances that will sicken or even kill us as we sit at the dinner table or the breakfast nook with the family. Poisons that were deliberately and consciously engineered into the most basic of commodities essential to maintaining life, liberty and the American way.

And this statement was uttered by someone who, by any reasonable definition, is a member of the intelligentsia, the elite, intellectually speaking. Which raises the question: What chance do the proponents of biotechnology have in convincing “ordinary” people that the science of genetic engineering isn’t causing food products to be turned into packaged death if so-called smart people readily accept the Frankenfoods argument?

Here was my response to her comment.

Security in science

First of all, I asked this woman if she trusts in the credibility of the PhDs and the scientists employed as faculty and researchers at the college. Does she believe that they’re reputable, that they subscribe to the scientific method, that they bring the proper level of skepticism required of anyone who makes a career of scientific inquiry.

The answer was yes, of course.

I asked if her if she believed that the faculty who teach chemistry, biology, physics and mathematics are properly trained. Does she feel confident they have the requisite knowledge, the broad understanding of the research and discovery that underlies the information they share with students.

At this point, she agreed, but started getting annoyed, because it became obvious where I was going with my argument.

Yes, but what does that have to do with GMOs? she asked.

My point was that biotechnology—specifically, genetic engineering—is way more sophisticated, way more advanced, way more high tech than the subject matter university students are learning, even at the graduate level. If this woman felt secure that the science faculty know what they’re doing, then why would she doubt scientists who are even more highly trained, who are even more knowledgeable about genetics, about molecular dynamics, about the incredibly complex process of gene splicing?

Is her thinking that the best of the best, the acknowledged leaders among bio scientists, the so-called smartest people in the lab, are incompetent? That they don’t know what they’re doing? That as they progressed from undergraduate to graduate to doctoral studies, they somehow lost the plot? That after all the education and training, that they wandered off into uncharted territory and ended developing a technique that resulted in poisoned food?

That’s like believing that your family physician, with his or her medical degree, advanced training and years of practice can be fully trusted to advise and treat pretty much anything health problem we have. But, god forbid, if we need complex surgery or some cutting-edge, sophisticated treatment protocol, we should be suspicious of the highly trained surgeons or radiologists that take over when the family doctor makes a referral because he or she doesn’t have the skills and training to deal with your condition.

Really? Does that even make sense?

Or, I suggested, perhaps your understanding is that an evil, greedy corporation — I won’t mention any names but their initials are “MONSANTO” — decided, “hey, let’s use this dangerous technology to pressure farmers into growing lots and lots of contaminated corn and soybeans. And then let’s sit back and watch as thousands of people get sick and die once these crops are processed into food products.”

Is that your line of reasoning? I asked.

No, of course, not, she replied. But she said that she just doesn’t believe that there’s enough research to understand what the long-term effect of these GMOs really have on people.

So, is 20 years enough time? I asked, because that’s how long genetically engineered crops have been planted, harvested and processed into food ingredients. Would you be more comfortable with 30 years? 40 years? A century? Maybe two centuries?

As you can imagine, that at this point she was thoroughly irritated and unwilling to continue the conversation.

But that’s the bottom line, I suggested. Either you believe that some of the top scientists in the world are incompetent, and either deliberately, or unwittingly, created poisonous versions of our most basic food crops, or else you believe that a group of corporations conspired to sicken and kill their customers just to fatten their bottom lines.

To anyone who spends his or her working hours in an academic institution of higher education, either scenario ought to be dismissed as ridiculous on its face.

But here we are in the 21st century, where highly educated people, who have absolutely no problem accepting sophisticated technology as safe and effective when it comes to flying in jet airliners or undergoing invasive surgical procedures or swallowing potent drugs to combat serious illnesses can then turn around and declare that biotechnology is a horror show that cannot be trusted or tolerated.

I felt like I won the argument, but that there’s little chance of winning the war.

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