When I was asked a few months ago if I might be available to volunteer my time to attend a conference to chat with consumers about GMOs at the GMO Answers (GMOA) booth, I excitedly said yes. They told me they were waiting to confirm details and to see if they could generate enough interest to get people like myself to volunteer time to connect with people at the event. Eventually it was confirmed that the conference was South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, Texas and I was thrilled to be a part of this. Also? (I had never heard of SXSW!). It’s a huge multi-media event, a combination of film, music and interactive festivals held each year in Austin. I had no idea how huge it was until I got there, and we were only involved in the interactive exhibit part of the festival.
What is GMO Answers?
For those of you who don’t know, GMO Answers is a website that was launched about a year and a half ago to answer consumer questions about GMOs (genetically modified organisms). The biotech companies and the science community realized that over the last 15 years or so…they haven’t done the best job in communicating about this technology, so they realize they have to do a little bit of catch up to address public concerns. One of their taglines is:
Skeptical about GMOs? We understand. We want to do a better job of answering your questions.
The name of the game is transparency and honesty, and to date over 800 consumer questions have been answered on the GMOA website! All answers are provided on a volunteer basis by farmers, plant scientists, molecular biologists, researchers, academics, industry representatives, independent experts (bloggers, like me) and more. I haven’t answered any questions, but I was asked if my article “Can You Live a GMO Free Life?” be shared there and I happily said yes.
How Was My GMO Answers Experience?
I was very skeptical and quite nervous when I arrived in Austin and sat down at breakfast with the GMOA crew and volunteers on Tuesday morning, to be truly honest. I texted both my husband and my friend Cami Ryan and told them I felt I was out of my league at a table full of PhD’s and a Masters student. I was just a farm wife and mom. Just a blogger. I have a science degree, but it’s in nursing, and that’s completely irrelevant to agriculture. I was assured by both to be confident and that the letters behind my name and my credentials (or lack thereof) didn’t matter. To just be myself and share my story.
We arrive at the exhibit and were told that it would probably be a slow start to the morning as later that evening there was going to be a block party and that a lot of people would probably save their exhibiting for that. It did start out slow, I chatted a lot with the volunteers and got to know them better—all extremely nice people that I’m honoured to have met. Then I started to get my feet wet by listening to how they chatted with the exhibit-goers and started chatting myself.
I gave a smile, said hello, and would go up to people explaining briefly that I was there to answer consumer questions about GMOs and what GMO Answers was and if they wanted to chat to just let me know. A big attraction to the booth was the corn, cotton and canola on display. It was really nice to have that visual there, to get people to touch and interact with the plants and draw people in. I found the most common thing said to me after my introduction was “You tell me what is wrong with GMOs.” People often said that they “heard they were bad” but “didn’t know why”. I would always acknowledge that yes, there certainly is a lot of bad things said about GMOs, but then I went on to explain to them about the technology of GMOs and why it was an important tool for farmers to use, not the only tool for farmers to use.
I just shared my story, told them I came down to volunteer my time to chat with people at SXSW, that I was a farm wife to a 4th generation farmer and mom to two little boys, and that I also started blogging about agriculture and farm life because I wanted to know more myself and share that with my blog readers.
Moments to Remember
My favourite conversation was one of my last ones on the last day. It was with a curious young lady that wandered into our booth and started looking at pamphlets. I gave her my intro spiel and I believe she thought GMOA was more of an anti-GMO group that wanted to demand answers from the industry, but we were just the opposite. She was surprised that we were speaking up and being honest about GMOs to the consumers and once we chatted a bit, I could tell that she “got it”. She told me she bought mostly organic and asked me “so is it worth it to buy an organic red bell pepper for $2 more?” I told her that I’m pro-food choice and that if someone wants to buy all organic food, I thought it was great because we have that privilege in our world to have a choice of what to buy. I then told her where the difference lies is how that pepper is raised. The organic farmer can use pesticides [insert deer in headlights look here] but they are organic-approved and a lot are not synthetic, like what we would use on our farm. I gave a simple explanation on how Bt works both in GMO crops and organic crops: the same thing, but used in a different way. I acknowledged that taste is completely subjective and that if she felt organic tasted better and she wanted to pay $2 for taste to go for it, but that $2 was really only the premium on the methods used to raise the pepper, not a merit on it’s nutrition—that there is no great difference in the health benefits between organic and conventional and GM foods.
I explained that I had no problem if anyone wanted to eat only organics, but the issue I struggled with is the food-shaming that can accompany it. I told her it was very disheartening when organic marketing groups told lies about GMOs and the way that my family farms and that it honestly didn’t matter to me if people chose not to buy, or even like, GMOs…but that the food-shaming didn’t need to be carried out. I wasn’t sure if she was a mom yet, but I told her that everything is amplified on social media and that I saw too much mom-shaming regarding food choices and that it was hard enough to feel like you’re doing a good job being a mom without the added pressure of other people judging you for what food you feed your family. We smiled, shook hands and thanked each other for the conversation.
I also did run into a very passionate lady who asked if I had read books by Jeffrey Smith. Before I even had a chance to respond, she then told me that she loved farmers and her family farmed right and she grew up with it, but that 10,000 moms just know that RoundUp caused health problems in their children and that a GMO-free diet cured them (she is referring to Zen Honeycutt and her group Moms Across America, a group that banned me from asking questions on their Facebook page recently for questioning why they were celebrating the vandalism and destruction of GMO trials in Brazil). I took this time to just listen to all that she had to say instead of trying to interject. She also brought up the ‘great’ work that Vandana Shiva is doing to bring up awareness of Indian farmer suicides, how Monsanto sues small farmers and puts them out of business, Stephanie Seneff has linked RoundUp to autism, and a few points that I know I’m missing. It was a lot to take in all at once, so I just listened.
A biochemist from Syngenta was standing there with me and he explained to this lady (regarding the 10,000 moms) that it was a great hypothesis to have: GMOs cause allergies/illness/harm and a GMO-free diet cures that, but that epidemiological studies would need to be performed to prove that hypothesis to be true. I took a different approach with this woman and explained that I was a farm wife and a farm mom to two little boys and that I sincerely understand that we all want what’s best for our children and that if my children were sick, I would want to know why too. However, based on the merit of “I just know deep down in my heart that ‘x’ caused ‘y’ “, I could then claim that since my husband uses glyphosate/RoundUp regularly, that it is sprayed on the crops around our house, I’m doing laundry on his clothes that likely have glyphosate residues on them and that I have had two healthy pregnancies and two healthy, beautiful boys—that glyphosate isn’t harmful to children. I could then gather up 10,000 other moms with similar stories to me and we could then claim, on the same notion of Ms. Honeycutt, that glyphosate in fact does not cause allergies or other ill-effects in children. I hope the lady understood where I was coming from in the example that I gave her, I think she did.
She did bring up one point that really stuck with me. She told me that we have to take seriously the issue that people are believing and taking to heart what groups like Moms Across America and people like Shiva, Smith and Seneff are saying and doing. I know this, the industry knows this and we are trying really hard to address all of this, which is why I think it was so great form GMOA to be present at a non-agricultural event like SXSW.
I understand that the sensational stories and claims like “1 in 2 children will be born with autism by 2025 because of glyphosate” (Seneff) and “a GMO-free diet cured my child” (Honeycutt) tug at our heart strings and connect with a lot of people, especially parents, on an emotional level. It’s really easy to be swayed by anecdotal evidence and those personal, emotional claims…but we can’t. We have to be critical thinkers and seek out what the science tells us, even if the science isn’t sexy.
The Most Common Concerns About GMOs From SXSWers
….and the short answers given:
- GMO crops = more pesticides – no, overall pesticide use has decreased with the introduction of GM crops
- There are no long term studies – no long term studies have ever been done on any food production method
- Farmers are forced to by GMO seeds – farmers have choices, just like you do in the grocery store
- I just want to know what I’m eating: label it! – a lot of us were simply replying with: “GMO is a breeding technology, should we then label all breeding technologies/techniques?” It really got the wheels turning!
And of course, “Monsanto _(insert word/myth/accusation here)!_“. I had the pleasure of volunteering all my booth hours with Erin, a member of the plant-breeding team with Monsanto. Whenever someone came up to me with concerns about Monsanto, I always said “I’m not a Monsanto expert, but if you’re willing, we have a Monsanto scientist here that would love to speak with you.” They always declined, they did not want to hear it. It made me feel disheartened that so many didn’t even want to hear it from the proverbial horse’s mouth, but it’s their choice and they chose not to listen. I’ve also seen a lot of tweets from people that I am pretty sure never even came to talk to us
GMO Answers at SXSW
We’re a farmer, a scientist, a nutritionist and a biotech executive at SXSW answering quesitons about how GMO food is grown. A live Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) was done
Can Common Food Goals Find Common Ground? – Panel with Ben & Jerry’s (video to come)
GMO Answers at SXSW – Who was there? What was presented?
Watch GMO Answers @SXSW – Short videos of consumers and experts
I am honoured to have been chosen to be a volunteer to participate in the GMO discussion with the public and I would do it again in a heartbeat! I’m so excited to see what’s next for the GMOA team!