A website created by major seed companies four years ago to provide consumers with accurate information about genetically modified crops is receiving more than 2 million visits a year.
“We do feel like we are making a difference,” said Michael Stebbins, director of external engagement for GMO Answers.
The website is funded by member of the Council for Biotechnology Information, which includes BASF, Bayer, Dow AgroSciences, DuPont, Monsanto Co. and Syngenta.
The online conversation about genetically engineered crops, commonly called GMOs, is not where CBI members want it to be yet, “but it’s certainly in a better place than it was a couple of years ago,” Stebbins said. “We do feel like we are making a difference and we’d like to move the needle a little bit every year.”
The website invites people to ask tough questions about GMO crops and encourages them to be skeptical but also open-minded. Questions are referred to independent experts who are not paid by GMO Answers, Stebbins said.
He said most of the questions have to do with the safety of GMO crops, “even though this issue has been addressed again and again. People still have their doubts.”
Robert Wager, a molecular biologist at Vancouver Island University in Canada, is one of the experts who donate time to answer questions submitted to the website.
“Very clearly, after 20 years of commercial genetically engineered crops and thousands of tests, there is no evidence that shows genetically engineered crops represent any unique risk beyond the normal uncertainties of plant breeding,” he told Capital Press.
Wager believes the conversation in the U.S. about GMO crops is starting to turn in their favor, thanks in part to efforts by groups like GMO Answers and individual farmers who are “stepping up and telling the public what they do, how they do it and why they do it.”
“The public is getting a much more balanced view of this technology than they did five years ago,” he said.
The nation’s sugar beet industry recently announced it will launch a $4 million online campaign this fall aimed at changing consumers’ minds about the safety and benefits of GMO crops.
Idaho sugar beet farmer Duane Grant, who is helping lead that effort, said users of GMO crops made a conscious decision when the technology was introduced commercially in 1996 not to engage consumers about it, deferring communication about it to the federal agencies that regulate GMO crops and gave them a green light.
However, those agencies are not set up to counter the “aggressive falsehood campaigns” that were created to oppose GMO crops, he said. “It falls to the users of biotechnology — food producers, processors, food retailers — to make that statement.”
Bill Freese, a science policy analyst for the Center for Food Safety, which opposes the use of GMO crops, disagrees that pro-GMO supporters are making progress in changing people’s minds about genetically engineered crops.
Pro-GMO groups have conducted various public relations campaigns for years but they have failed because American consumers don’t believe them, he said.
“I think there’s a good reason all their PR efforts are failing,” Freese said. “People are seeing through the hype and misinformation.”
Widespread public support for GMO labeling laws “is a really good sign of continuing strong resistance to GMOs,” he said. “People want to avoid GMOs.”