GENETICALLY modified organisms (GMOs) are a hot topic when society discusses food, but an important voice — the agricultural biotechnology companies that develop the GMO seeds — was missing from the conversation.
That led members of The Council for Biotechnology Information (CBI), which includes BASF, Bayer CropScience, Dow AgroSciences LLC, DuPont, Monsanto Co. and Syngenta, to join together and open the lines of communication when it comes to answering the public's tough questions about GMOs and how food is grown.
Acknowledging the need to provide an openness and access to information, the GMO Answers Initiative, a multiprong program, was launched.
"GMOs are a growing topic of discussion today, with a wide range of questions and emotions," Dr. Cathleen Enright, spokesperson for GMO Answers, said. "Food is personal, so we want to open the door for personal discussions."
The conversation about GMOs was elevated to a national level when the public and legislatures began debating labeling food that contains GMO ingredients.
"Everyone was talking about our product but us," Enright said. "We recognize that we haven't done the best job communicating about GMOs — what they are, how they are developed, food safety information, the science, data and processes."
As the public discussion on GMOs continues, the scientists who develop biotech seeds, along with the farmers who grow them, want to make information about GMOs easier to find and understand.
"It is no secret that a lot of poor information is floating around concerning agriculture, and biotech is often at the forefront," said Brian Scott, an Indiana farmer and a member of the GMO Answers independent expert panel. "Too often, the non-agriculture public is hearing about the latest in crop technology from those who are dead set against it."
GMO Answers, online at www.GMOAnswers.com, is a new conversation — a one-stop site for public questions/answers and information on GMOs, their background, use in agriculture and research and data in one easy-to-access public resource for the first time.
"We want people to join us and ask their tough questions. Be skeptical. Evaluate the information, and decide for yourself. We look forward to an open conversation," Enright said.
Since the launch a few weeks ago, GMO Answers has had many visitors and received 150 questions in the first week, but most of the discussion currently is between normal followers of the GMO issues and the experts.
"GMO Answers was created as a place for anyone to have a rational discussion about biotechnology. I know it will attract the anti-GMO crowd to post questions and answers. It is important that we encourage people of all backgrounds and opinions to jump in and take part in the conversation so we can all learn together," Scott said.
Scott also invites other farmers to participate, noting, "It's very important that farmers of all types jump into these discussions. If people really want to know more about the food they eat, then who better to ask than a farmer?"
GMO Answers' founding members and its partners are not trying to convince people to one side or another; they just want to create a welcoming environment for anyone to participate, obtain information and draw his or her own conclusion.
"I really hope that more people will consider the science behind biotechnology before they take a firm stand against it," Scott said. "Often, biotech is just trying to do many things that nature already does. Many plants, including crops, produce their own toxins and are resistant to certain herbicides naturally. I believe there is a perception out there that biotech crops are the only plants in the world doing these things.
"I understand that food is an emotional topic, but a basic understanding of why these products are brought to market and why farmers continue to use them should be taken into consideration," he added.
"If you still don't agree with me at the end of the day, that is fine, but if someone browsing the site at least sees that there are two sides to every story, that's a good thing. Too often, there is only one side of the story being told," Scott concluded.
The GMO Answers website is not the only vehicle CBI plans to use in encouraging both sides to check out facts, ask questions and engage in dialogue.
CBI will also host public forums that will bring experts with differing opinions to the table to openly discuss GMOs and biotechnology.
The initiative's member companies are committed to hosting company tours, and supporting agricultural associations will host farm tours and field tests.
Nuts and bolts
The purpose of GMO Answers is to create a community where anyone can ask questions and learn more about GMOs and biotechnology. In return, experts across a wide range of disciplines will provide fact-based responses to the questions posted on the website.
Everyone is invited to participate in the discussion and ask a question by logging in using a social media account or simply creating an account by providing a user name, password, email, city and state.
The site does declare house rules, and content that is off-topic or that does not adhere to the rules will be subject to removal.
Submitted questions are answered by two panels of experts.
The independent panel members are volunteers and are not affiliated with CBI or its member companies. It includes conventional and organic farmers, agribusiness experts, scientists, academics, medical doctors and nutritionists from a wide range of studies.
While the forum is not a discussion board for each of the CBI members, the council realizes that questions will come up. Company experts will address all constructive questions that are posted to the site.
All experts freely answer the questions by logging in. Neither CBI nor its member companies edit the answers. When an expert does answer a question, he or she is identified by a picture and short biography.
In addition to answering questions online, a nationwide survey will be conducted to find out the top 10 questions consumers ask about GMOs, and those questions will be answered publicly.