On GMOs & Changing Your Mind…

A few months ago I wrote a post titled What Would it Take? In it, I asked both proponents and opponents of GMOs what it would take to change their minds on their current position. Much to my disappointment only the PRO camp responded—which tells you something there.

Granted, I don’t have the biggest audience in the world, but I know I have Julee K, perhaps the only person whose mind I was instrumental in changing on the dicey issue of GMOs in a piece I did titled The Lowdown on GMOs with a Scientistthough, it is probably more fair to say it was Dr. Kevin Foltaand ask her a few questions on how it felt to change her mind on so visceral and emotional an issue, and you can find our back and forth below.


1

Hi Julee, before you changed your mind, I’m sure that you had read other pro-GMO pieces from other scientists, yet it was me, a non-journalist, non-scientist conducting a Q&A with plant geneticist Kevin Folta that actually began the unwinding of your philosophy. What was it about this particular interview that instigated such a deep change in your outlook?

I’m going to have to set up my answer to this question with a little backstory so please bare with me.

I have always thought myself to be a reasonable person, capable of not onlyhearing but understanding both sides of any issue.  What got me to join the anti-GMO ranks initially was an experience in an Iowacorn field that had just been sprayed by a plane and how it affected my breathing and nervous system.  To this day I don’t know what got sprayed that fateful day.  At thetime I thought it was Roundup.  I now know it is unlikely it could have been Roundup (because Roundup is sprayed on young corn and this corn was mature).  I say this because that visceral experience started my investigation into pesticides, corn and similar topics.  This ‘information sojourn’ landed me smack dab in the center of the anti-GMO activist camp—and like an eager puppy, I lapped up the kool-aid while wagging my tail.

At the same time, the Prop 37 labeling campaign was going on in California and I became further entrenched in anti-GMO rhetoric.  I even gave fifty bucks to The Organic Consumer’s Association!  At the same time I started a blog called Sleuth4Health and was determined to use this blog to warn people about the dangers of GMOs.  Surely they were destroying our food supply and I was to be a beacon of light in the darkness.  Americans were being duped and didn’t even know it.

But along the way certain things began to register in the back of my mind.  The propaganda and sensationalism of the literature bothered me—a lot.  Good facts don’t require hype.  I also began to run across the same information over and over.  The same tired rants were just repackaged in new articles and memes ad nauseum.  This puffed up ‘information’ would also circulate through all of the anti-GMO websites and blogs.  All one needed to do was copy and paste and voila, instant post.

The other big red flag was that the scientists that anti-GMO activists hang their hats all came across to me as rogue characters on the fringe—lone wolfs with an ax to grind.  As I said, these things registered with me at a subconscious level, well before I began to change my mind.

I also began discussing the issue of GMOs with my son. I ranted on and on about all the so-called studies, the most well-known at the time was Seralini’s infamous rat study.  Surely these sad little photos of tumorous rats confirmed the horrific dangers of GMOs.  From the mouth of a just-out-of-high-school babe came these words: ‘yeah mom, but what about the controls?‘  Now granted, he had taken some advanced biology and chemistry in school, but still, how could he be so cavalier about this?  He was giving me that ‘mom is off her rocker’ look. He also seemed completely unconcerned about GMOs and that registered deeply with me although at the time, I would not have admitted it.

So the timing was about perfect that fateful day I came across your blog. Though I didn’t yet know my mind was adjusting, I found your article, clicked on it then clicked away a few times, and then eventually made the courageous decision to read it.  The title drew me in:  The Lowdown on GMOs With a Scientist.  I thought, oh good, I can see how this grand debate is handled in the science community.

I think the very first question you asked is what Dr. Folta wanted people to know about GMOs and he answered quite matter-of-factly that there was absolutely no debate in the scientific community that GMOs pose any more safety risk than conventional.  

This statement quite literally felt like a sucker punch to my gut.  It derailed me.  No debate—like at all?  WHAT?  Ridiculous!  I was determined to prove this arrogant scientist wrong, but even as I was thinking this, I knew it was a futile undertaking.  Though I had no scientific background, I was astute enough to know, before I even tried, that he would shred me.

It was then that the doubts began creeping out of my subconscious like little worms crawling above ground into the light of day.

Oh crap, I thought.  Could it be I’ve been wrong all along?

2

If you remember, how long did your transition take? And could you give a brief outline of how you hustled and tussled with your inner-demons?

I read the rest of Folta’s answers and the firestorm of comments that ensued, taking into account your articulate contributions to all of that.  I noticed early on that you had changed your mind about GMOs, that you were smart, very well informed but not a scientist.  It was the first time I had come across a layperson who had clearly given some time to figuring out what the truth was.  That impressed me very much.   You said something like ‘I didn’t know what I was talking about’ regarding your former position on GMOs and I remember thinking you were brave to admit such a thing.

But it was that pesky ‘no debate at all’ answer that dealt the fatal blow.  I could not reason my way out of that fact.  Folta and I went on to email back and forth for about a month.  I was free to ask anything I wanted.  He berated many of my blog posts, which were growing decidedly more militant due mostly to the California GMO labeling campaign that was getting lots of attention in blogs at the time.  Via the web I was getting daily earfuls of outspoken voices like Vandana Shiva and Ronnie Cummins, two notorious GMO haters. But through all of that, Folta and I maintained  a friendly banter.  I was frankly impressed and a little flattered that such a big personality in crop genetics would even give me the time of day.

In the end, I just didn’t have any evidence that could stand up to that which Folta had and before I even tried to fight him in earnest, I knew it was futile.  My beliefs could not stand up to facts, no matter how passionate they were.  That was a big ‘light bulb on’ moment for me.

At the end of that exchange, my conversion was complete.

3

What were some of the things that you used to believe about GMOs that made you anti-GMO that you don’t believe anymore? What of these things was a key belief/fact for you and what do you think about that now?

There were two main types of GMOs that bothered me:  Roundup Ready seeds and engineering the Bt trait, an insecticide, into seeds.

Let’s go back to the just-sprayed corn field in Iowa.  I wrongly assumed it was Roundup coming out of that plane—giant sheets of Monsanto’s Roundup raining down on acres and acres of mature corn.  Of course, I thought this before I realized the expense of such a practice would be cost prohibitive—to coat all of those leaves just before harvesting.  It doesn’t even make sense.  But that was my wrong thinking.

Now granted, whatever that chemical spray was, my sinuses and nervous system did not like it at all.  I may never know what it was, though a few Iowa farmers have since offered their best guesses.  In any case, it was most likely not Roundup.  But of course I thought it was so I began to dig, starting with reading the entire Roundup label and of course, googling it.  When one is clueless and googles “Roundup” one is ushered into a world of tirades about GMOs and Roundup ready crops and corn is front and center because it is used for so many products.  So my first impressions were that we were eating freakish, monster corn that wouldn’t die.  A horror movie played in my head over this.

I later learned exactly what the genetic mechanism is that enables a plant to be Roundup resistant and it isn’t scary at all.  In fact, it’s pretty amazing.  That’s the thing, the known assuages fear of the unknown.  I also learned that no-till farming can be of immense benefit to farmers and their land and doesn’t mean they are lazy.  There is SO much more to it than that.  First of all, Roundup seeds and the Roundup products are very expensive so farmers wouldn’t bother if they didn’t see value in their use.  And guess what?  Farmers are really quite smart!  Anti-GMO types tend to view farmers as poor, unfortunate victims of Monsanto and that is just ridiculous – and a gross insult to them.

Now on to my other main concern at the time—the Bt trait engineered into the corn and cotton, which makes the plant itself resistant to the targeted pests.  First of all, it should be known that organic farmers use Bt too, topically.  But yes, transgenic technology allows for the engineering of the Bt trait into the seed so that the plant is itself resistant to pests.  People who are not scientifically savvy immediately believe that if the plant does damage to insects when they eat it, it will do damage to us as well when we eat it.  I understand that thinking because I thought that too.  But humans are not insects!  It doesn’t work that way.  The fact is, engineering the Bt trait into crops has saved fields, lots and lots of fields, from those nasty crop-dusters.  This is a hard and fast fact that is either ignored or misconstrued by the anti-GMO movement.

4

Did your emotional transition take longer than your intellectual transition?

Yes it certainly did.  After my complete one-eighty, I knew there was absolutely no rationale for fearing GMO crops or foods manufactured from said crops – intellectually.  But the more visceral ick factor had set in and was much more difficult to overcome.  Perhaps it goes back to that Iowa corn field.  I don’t know.

5

How long did it take before you felt comfortable eating GM produce? (Provided, that is, you actually eat it.)

It probably took a year to work through most of my irrational fears at the grocery store.

Today I eat almost everything, GMO or not.  I sometimes buy organic if it makes sense and if I can afford it, but when I don’t I am much more relaxed about it.  I am eternally grateful to know that food really is pretty darn safe and I’m not going to die from eating non-premium, regular store brand canola oil.  It really is a huge relief to be in that place!

OK, to be honest, there is one GMO I still won’t eat, but not because it’s a GMO.  I won’t buy dairy products that come from cows that received rBGH.  My rationale is that because of the opportunity to get the expanded milk production, the cows are milked non-stop and the poor things have sore, infected udders and they are miserable, hence the need for antibiotics.  So it’s more an animal cruelty issue than the fact that a GMO is in the hormone.  And I don’t even know if I have good facts here.  But there you have it.

6

What advice would you give to others firmly entrenched in the anti camp who, like you, have skeptical parts buried under layers of ideology?

I would advise anyone who suspects they might be caught in the middle of a quagmire of misinformation to immediately halt any reading on the subject that is generated by activists.  There is a lengthy list of these activist websites and groups but I’ll just name a few:  Institute of Responsible Technology, Organic Consumers Association, GM Watch, Moms Against Monsanto, Health Ranger, Mercola.

Instead I would research some of the more benevolent uses for transgenic technology – uses that may not be tied to industry and profits at all, such as Golden Rice.  One of the co-founders of Greenpeace, Patrick Moore, now speaks out heavily in favor of Golden Rice and has a website devoted to educating the public about it.  http://www.allowgoldenricenow.org/moral-compass

Furthermore, I would read blogs such as yours or my own that chronicle an actual individual’s change from anti-GMO to pro-science.  My blog serves as an honest real-time narrative of someone who, without any plans to do so initially, switched from Camp A to Camp B because Camp B simply had more reliable information.


10 comments

  1. Great piece, I enjoying seeing that progress. Conversion on this seems so rare–it’s great to have the backstory!

    But what I keep hearing from these (admittedly limited) experiments in scicomm in the wild is that it’s not just one comment–not only one claim–not one data point–not one paper–it’s series of things that accumulate. And then the tipping happens. So if that’s true, the perfectly precise comment, or the most well-crafted science blog post, is just a piece of it.

    I think a lot of us wrangling with scicomm keep trying to figure out the right specific message, or the right delivery, or the right data. Because we think that must exist! But there are 2 problems with that.

    1. It will vary by person. What they are ready for, what they have heard, what they are capable of getting, what type of thing they need. A combination of strategies makes sense. Sometimes hand-holding may be right. Sometimes a dope-slap might–this will depend on the person.

    2. There are going to be completely unreachable folks and active misinformers. I think we keep thinking that they are the target and if we could just convince them…but increasingly I don’t think they are. I think we have to write them off. Unfortunately they are also the shoutiest. But I am really thinking they are just much louder than their actual numbers are.

    I think we are agonizing about the worst case anti-GMO individuals, and worrying about imperfect incidents (like the Neil deGrasse Tyson video going around now), when the weight of each of those is less than they actually are.

    1. Thanks Mem. It is, indeed, rare to here such a backstory. Mine was similar in that through a fortitious choice of book reading did the keys unlock, so to speak, inside my noggin.

      I find myself in agreement with your number 2. They should almost not be dealt with back-n-forth. It is informative to debunk their arguments for those on the fence, but they are truly a lost cause. Oh, and for me, the dope-slap is what usually works 🙂 Just came right out and say I’m an idiot: that will invariably grab my attention.

      1. When I “converse” with an activist (my definition is one who no longer cares about facts, has made up his or her mind, and will do and say anything to “win”) it is only to speak to the audience of the conversation. That’s what is awesome about Facebook. I have had people tell me they changed from anti to pro-GMO due to my Facebook conversations and I didn’t even know they were paying attention. I also helps, I believe, to marginalize these folks, to shine a light on their lies, misinformation, and even insanity sometimes.

  2. Great article! Just wanted to add a little information on the rBST milk issue. I have a micro-dairy and have worked on large dairies and have friends in the dairy business. Cows are not milked non-stop, they absolutely do not have sore infected udders all the time and milk is constantly tested for antibiotics and does not leave the farm (even if there is a trace amount in 50,000 lbs of milk, it would get dumped). I have also researched and studied the information out there about rBST and now that I understand it from a scientific point of view, I have no concerns.
    Here is a great article on rBST that should help answer any questions. http://www.ansci.cals.cornell.edu/sites/ansci.cals.cornell.edu/files/shared/documents/Recombinant_Bovine_Somatotropin.pdf
    Angie
    Douglas Falls Creamery

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