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Empathy Key to Explaining GMOs to Nonfarmers

7/6/2013 7:00 AM
By Philip Gruber Staff Writer

LANDISVILLE, Pa. — When Duane Hobbs asked how many farmers in the audience had received questions about the safety of genetically modified crops, a good third of his listeners raised their hands.

The issue is clearly important to a large number of U.S. consumers, most of whom are at least one generation removed from a farming family member. Hobbs said a friend’s 12-year-old son had even encountered the topic at a Bible camp.

Understanding why nonfarmers are asking about genetically modified crops is the key to allaying their concerns, Hobbs, a Syngenta sales rep, said June 27 at the Penn State Southeast Research and Extension Center in Landisville, Pa.

Hobbs’s talk was the lunch keynote of the Farming for Success field day.

“We know (these foods) are safe,” he said. “Why would a farmer grow something that might harm his own children?”

Still, farmers need to “have some compassion with those who ask questions,” he said. “They want to know if their food supply is safe.”

He noted that Americans are affluent consumers, which means they have computers to help them make buying decisions. Hobbs criticized the large amount of incorrect material on the Internet for stoking unfounded fears about bioengineered foods, known as GMOs (genetically modified organisms).

Hobbs focused on reacting calmly to emotional rhetoric rather than providing charts and tables demonstrating for the safety of GMOs.

While a farmer’s first inclination may be to respond to a distraught consumer with a logical argument or a reciprocally emotional response, Hobbs said those were not the right responses because trying to reason with an emotional person is futile.

“Angry people won’t hear you, so listen to them,” he urged.

He suggested determining the nonfarmer’s root concern and then offering to find the answer to their specific problem. He provided Internet links on the subject and suggested talking with industry or Extension experts to obtain that information.

Hobbs did provide some basics on the necessity of GMOs.

He noted that the world population is over 7 billion and cited a World Bank projection that the planet could have 9 billion people by 2050.

As standards of living rise around the world, humans are consuming more animal protein, which requires more resources than the vegetable protein people have relied on for centuries, Hobbs said.

The pressure of increasing population and consumption is forcing farmers to produce more food from less land.

He also said water use is becoming an growing issue worldwide. He touted his company’s developments of plant hybrids — not GMOs — that require 15 percent less water than standard varieties. Hobbs speculated that GMOs might be able to reduce water consumption even more.

Hobbs also listed some positive attributes of GMOs. Genetically modified crops are often healthier because they possess genes that help them resist diseases and insects. The innate hardiness of bioengineered varieties can reduce the need for chemical pesticides, which is a boon to the whole environment.

Concerns about safety can also be pacified by the knowledge that GMOs are the most extensively tested and regulated sector of the crop industry, with oversight from the USDA, U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Hobbs said that, despite the U.S. producing more than 3 trillion pounds of foods from GMOs, the genetic modifications have never been linked to ill effects on humans.

GMOs are nearly inescapable anyway, Hobbs said. Between 40 and 75 percent of processed foods, ranging from pizza to cookies, contain GMOs.

“Who doesn’t like pizza?” Hobbs asked.

Sugar from modified sugar beets and corn are the main sources of GMOs in food. More than 90 percent of those crops are genetically modified. Almost all the soybeans grown in the U.S. are modified as well.

Hobbs acknowledged that GMOs are popular among farmers because they can fetch higher prices, but he said that environmental preservation, production efficiency and quality of life improvement are the things that make GMOs worth the investment.

One bioengineered product takes an average of 13 years and $136 million to develop, he said.

Hobbs ended his talk by exhorting the farmers to put themselves in the shoes of their nonfarm neighbors. Genetic modification scares people because it uses high-level science to affect the food consumers eat every day.

Respect and an offer to take the person’s question to experts are the best ways to make a discussion of GMOs lead to understanding and not squabbling, he said.

Hobbs declared that “the American farmer” is “the ultimate environmentalist” because of farmers’ dedication to preserving soil and water resources.

“The entire world comes to the U.S.” to learn sustainable agricultural practices, Hobbs said. “Don’t bow your head when someone comes to you and asks you about GMOs. Be proud.”


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