Fighting for the hearts and minds of consumers

“Warning,” said the Feb. 7 news release. “Your Valentine’s Day treats may be filled with GMOs.”

The release was from GMO Inside, a coalition of businesses and organizations that support “a healthy GMO-free food system.” This latest campaign is an effort to get Hershey and Mars to label GMOs in chocolates and other candy or remove GMOs completely.

Ingredients from genetically modified crops would seem to be the least of your worries if you’re eating lots of chocolates and candies, but the anti-GMO zealots like to aim their guns at specific targets.

“Genetically modified organisms have never been proven safe for consumption, and a growing body of studies is raising concerns about the health effects of eating them,” said the news release.

“GMOs are also increasing the use of toxic herbicides and causing harm to farmers in the U.S. and abroad.”

What a patently false load of crap. No credible safety concerns have materialized after billions of meals containing GM food have been served around the world over the last 17 years. The few studies raising alarms have been solidly debunked.

GM crops have much more stringent regulatory requirements than crops derived by regular plant breeding. In fact, regulations are so onerous and time-consuming that only large companies with deep pockets can afford to play the game.

As for the claim that GMOs increase the use of herbicides, this is also untrue. Herbicide use may be rising, but without GM crops the rate of increase would be far higher and many of the products used would be more expensive and troublesome.

Many experts believe GM crop development is humanity’s most important tool for sustainably feeding a growing world population.

So why don’t we just tell consumers the truth? Why is it so difficult for science and common sense to prevail?

Saskatchewan Agriculture recently organized an Ag Awareness Summit. Participants say it was well-attended and thought-provoking. Many producer groups have consumer awareness initiatives, but activities are not as co-ordinated as they might be.

However, it’s a mistake to believe that getting the agriculture message to the general public is a simple task.

First of all, even within agriculture we don’t all agree on the message. For instance, organic farmers and organizations such as the National Farmers Union often speak out against GM crops. Even when we can agree, our messaging can fall short.

To its credit, the livestock industry is developing codes of practice in an effort to be proactive rather than reactive. Unfortunately, the non-farming public is so ignorant of where their food comes from that it can be almost impossible to meet their expectations.

And what will receive the most media attention and consumer notice: a detailed, science-based code of practice for raising cattle or undercover video of alleged mistreatment?

There’s now social media, and we can Tweet and Facebook to our heart’s content, but will this reach the target audience? I don’t follow the tweets of the twits who misrepresent agriculture. I suspect they don’t follow mine, either. It’s a world where public opinion can turn on the latest proclamation from Queen Oprah or the newest book that tells the evils of eating wheat.

Yes, agricultural awareness is an important task for everyone involved in the industry. We need co-ordinated approaches and ongoing commitments. But we shouldn’t fool ourselves. This isn’t a short skirmish. It will be a long-term, uphill battle.

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