Let’s face it, we’re all clueless

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The headline in last week’s Farm and Dairy read: “GM foods: Most Americans clueless.” The article cited research from Rutgers that found – no surprise – that most people in this country know very little about food production or genetically modified foods.

That lack of knowledge, however, doesn’t stop Americans from expressing an opinion about it, added William Hallman of the Food Biotechnology Program at Rutgers’ Food Policy Institute.

That’s shouldn’t come as a surprise either.

Americans have been expressing opinions on issues we know nothing about for centuries. It’s called the First Amendment and is a bedrock upon which this nation was founded.

My response to the GM issue and clueless consumers is harsh: Researchers and the agriculture community are clueless, too.

We’re asking a nonscientific population to accept a complicated technology that raises as many questions as it answers, that gives them no direct, perceived benefit. Just trust us, is the implied message.

“Consumers have been asked to take a risk without any benefit to them at all,” observes Jayson Lusk, Purdue University agricultural economist, in an article that appears on page A00 of this issue.

The pro-genetically modified public relations war failed with first generation products for that reason and I’m not sure biotechnology supporters learned anything.

The reason I say the industry is still clueless is because items cross my desk weekly that say so.

We’ve established that technology is more accepted by consumers if there is a real or perceived benefit. Then why, for instance, is the New Zealand dairy giant Fonterra experimenting with genetically engineering fruit enzymes into bacteria and yeast to produce “novel and desirable flavors” for dairy products?

The hope is that they can come up with new flavored milks, like apples, blueberries and kiwi.

Why isn’t more play given to the genetically modified canola used as a low-sulfur fuel additive to improve the environment?

Why don’t we emphasize research on whether a plant’s root system can be modified to increase its capability for storing excess carbon in farmland – and reducing carbon dioxide’s affect on global warming?

Although we have the technology, to what end should it be pursued?

In my opinion, biotechnology, or genetic modification, is a positive discovery. But a very wise reader shared an essay from last October’s issue of Harper’s Magazine that provokes thought:

“Science and the exercise of reason cannot by themselves provide the moral framework we need to judge our own inventions.”

And to scientists and short-term profiteers, Albert Einstein said in 1931:

“Concern for man himself and his fate must always form the chief interest of all technical endeavors… Never forget this in the midst of your diagrams and equations.”

The world doesn’t need a genetically modified blueberry-flavored milk.

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