What Does Biotech Have to Say About the GMO Debate?

A new website, funded by the likes of Monsanto, tries to shift the conversation about labeling and other issues.

A Monsanto employee at work in one of the company's laboratories—does biotech want consumers to see more of this? (Photo: Brent Stirton/Getty Images)

Jul 30, 2013· 2 MIN READ
Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

The hipster chick in the red knit hat and zip-up hoodie who appears in the opening scene of the video seems especially confused.

“What do they modify? Is there a tomato and you grow the tomato and then you modify it, or is it you modify it before the creation of the tomato?” Her friend chimes in with just the right inflection: “And do they do it because it’s cheaper or something?” Head-tilt.

That’s not exactly the burning question most of you probably have about GMOs, and at first I was convinced the pair were paid actors, but was then told by the folks over at public relations firm Ketchum that they were indeed “everyday people” on the street.

The video and slick new GMOAnswers website launched Monday by the agriculture biotech industry—specifically Monsanto, Dow Chemical, DuPont, Syngenta, Bayer CropScience and BASF—claim the site is a place where you and I can go and pose our most pressing GMO questions. Questions that will be answered by experts like Dr. Nina Fedoroff, a geneticist who opposed California’s Prop. 37 GMO labeling initiative; or ag consultant (and ex-Duponter) Steve Savage; and others vetted for their expertise.

It’s a public relations tactic perhaps borrowed from their friends over at the U.S. Farmer and Ranchers Alliance, who launched a similar website in November 2010 after videos showing the mistreatment of farm animals, including images of male chicks being put into grinders, made waves across the Internet.

“We recognize we haven’t done the best job communicating about GMOs—what they are, how they are developed, food safety information—the science, data and process. We want people to join us and ask their tough questions,” says GMOAnswers spokesperson Cathleen Enright in a press release by the Biotechnology Industry Organization.

The timing of the website’s launch is no accident, says Dave Murphy, executive director of Food Democracy Now and former co-chair of the California Prop. 37 labeling initiative. Nearly half the states in the U.S. have introduced GMO labeling bills, and a ballot initiative (I-522) will go before voters in Washington state this November.

“This is intentional,” Murphy tells TakePart. “It’s really an anti-GMO labeling website designed to muddy the waters and confuse consumers. I think the website is a huge diversion and distraction. There’s no truth that will ever be written on that website except for the names of the companies behind it.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by other pro-GMO labeling groups.

“More claims from the biotech industry about the safety of genetic engineering are not a replacement for the clear labeling that consumers are demanding,” says Food & Water Watch’s executive director Wenonah Hauter.

So far, a few dozen questions have been posed on the site. Some, like journalist Tamar Haspel’s, are pretty good: “One of the reasons for skepticism of assertions of GMO safety is that any negative results from safety trials can simply go unpublished. To what extent has that happened, and will you support full disclosure of all results?”

Others, like “Can genetic engineering protect plants from disease?” or “Isn’t the produce department in my grocery store full of products from GMOs?” come across as planted as a row of Iowa seed corn.

What might turn out to be more interesting than the answers supplied by pro-GMO experts are the studies and information the group says they’ll publish.

“We are putting the body of evidence online in one place for public review—so people can decide for themselves. It will be online, in one easy access resource. We already have links and citations (links to ISAAA and Biofortified, information on how GMOs are reviewed and approved by government regulators around the world),” Bill Mashek, VP and Group Manager at Ketchum, tells TakePart in an email. “We will continue to build out those pages and resources.”

That, and according to the New York Times, “the crop biotechnology companies would also start offering tours of their laboratories to the public.” I’m not sure exactly how to get an invitation to that, but hey—maybe I’ll go post it on the GMOAnswers website. Fingers crossed.