Nancy Kavazanjian knows why a recent survey showed that just 22 percent of U.S. adults agree with the results of a comprehensive report published in March that declared scientists have not found any substantiated evidence that genetically modified foods are unsafe.

“The unfortunate part of the controversy surrounding the technology is that it isn’t a scientific argument. It’s very much an emotional argument,” said Kavazanjian, a Beaver Dam farmer who also heads the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance.

Nobody understands that better than Dominique Brossard, a professor and chair of UW-Madison’s Life Sciences Communication Department who was a member of the committee that published the report and then helped conduct the survey. “People are super confused right now because they hear things about genetically modified foods being controversial and a risk,” she said.

What are genetically modified foods? It has been estimated that 75 percent to 80 percent of food in the U.S. contain genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, that come from crops that have been engineered to be resistant to insects and herbicides.

Proponents say that scientific consensus for the safety of GMOs is the same as for the dangers of global warming. They also believe GMO crops can help save the world food crisis and the environment and any study critical of GMOs has been funded by their opponents.

Opponents claim GMOs cause serious health problems, hurt the environment and have successfully lobbied most of the world—including the European Union countries — to shun GMOs. Monsanto, the St. Louis-based seed and weed-killer company, is Public Enemy No. 1 and GMO opponents believe its fingerprints can be found on every study claiming GMOs are safe.

The labeling law

Both sides sparred over the past year during a debate over a bill ordering labels on foods that contain GMOs. It was signed into law last month by President Obama.

A survey of 1,008 adults, conducted in May by researchers from UW and the University of Pennsylvania, showed that 88 percent of Americans support the mandatory labeling of foods containing genetically modified organisms and that 91 percent agree that people have the right to know when they buy or eat products that contain GMOs.

Brossard supported the bill that will allow companies to label with QR codes or a toll-free number so consumers can use their cellphones to learn the specifics of the food. Many opponents of GMOs dislike the bill because they believe it discriminates against people who lack the ability to access off-label information.

“Is it perfect? Potentially not. But it’s a compromise,” Brossard said. “It’s a first step. I think we are heading in the right direction.”

Study answers questions

Brossard and Kavazanjian are hoping the news surrounding the labeling law will get consumers to learn more about GMO foods. They both said the best place to start is by reading the study of genetically modified corn, soybean and cotton completed by a committee of 20 renowned scientists and researchers for the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine.

UW-Madison biochemist Richard Amasino joined Brossard on the committee that interviewed 80 diverse speakers, read more than 700 comments from members of the public to broaden its understanding of issues surrounding GE crops and examined all the relevant studies for and against GMOs. The examinations sometimes included multiple interviews with the authors.

The committee found no evidence of any health or environmental problems caused by GMOs. It also found no evidence that yields were increased. The study wasn’t applauded or criticized by either side of the GMO argument, which was a positive sign for some committee members.

“I’m super proud of the process,” Brossard said. “It was a really consensus report. Everyone in the committee — at the end of the day — really agreed in the conclusions. You bring a neutrality to some extent because you end up having the points that are really, really backed up with evidence. That was a very fruitful process. … It was very gratifying.”

The committee looked at data for all the health risks attributed to GMOs like cancer, obesity, kidney diseases and gastrointestinal tract diseases. To point out how it found no evidence of more incidents of cancer due to GMOs, the committee used charts to show the patterns of change in the disease in the United States have been generally similar to those in the United Kingdom and Europe, where diets contain much lower amounts of food derived from GE crops.

“We said, ‘These were the concerns and we looked at all the scientific evidence and that’s how we synthesized it. Now make up your mind while reading the report. See for yourself,’” Brossard said.

An eye toward the future

The study showed that the system that includes a few companies and a regulatory agency watching them is in good shape, Amasino said. “The major companies have an enormous amount of resources devoted to thoroughly analyzing from all perspectives whether this is a safe product,” he said. “In fact, some of the stuff they do with the (Food and Drug Adminstration) is not even required. They just ask the FDA: Can we submit all this data to you and look it over for us? And the FDA is willing to devote people to do that.”

But Amasino isn’t as confident about the future. “Our study doesn’t preclude that at some point in the future that somebody will make a mistake and put a gene in that we didn’t anticipate. We can’t guarantee zero risk in perpetuity. Companies will be putting different genes in,” he said.

Amasino is on another NAS committee studying future challenges facing the regulatory system with genetic engineering. “This committee has been more eye-opening for me because it’s in a realm that I hadn’t been in much; there are a lot of things going on that were off my radar screen until I served on this committee,” he said.

He described a growing do-it-yourself biotech industry that is genetic engineering’s version of the craft-beer industry. “There are community labs in major cities where regular people can come in and tinker around with genetically engineered stuff. A few are working with plants,” he said.

Examples of backyard experimentation include glowing fish available for purchase at most pet stores and Wal-Mart and glowing houseplants not for human consumption that act as a light source for a home. “They are almost a little bit like the opening scenes of ‘Bladerunner,’ where there was all this stuff being sold by street vendors,” Amasino said.

So far, Amasino sees no safety risks with the new creations. “On the other hand, they weren’t done by a major corporation,” he said. “You don’t have a group thinking about every aspect of safety here like you would at a bigger corporation that devotes people who have expertise in various things to think about that full-time. The world is changing in that regard because of the number of people who can do these things and the barriers are getting lower. But that’s why we have a regulatory system. Those small players can’t sell food unless they go through the (U.S. Department of Agriculture).”

Communicating locally

Amasino has patents in genetic engineering and Brossard worked on a government-funded project that included several companies, including Monsanto, so they were among the members of the NAS committee subjected to criticism by an anti-GMO group for conflict of interest. Brossard and Kavazanjian also drew criticism for speaking out publicly in favor of GMOs.

That angered Brossard, who said she confronted one critic and received an apology. “You attack the credibility of someone who you think is going to say something against you,” she said. “I think the media overall thought this was a very neutral report.”

Brossard worked tirelessly on two committees over the past several months but she said her work is actually just beginning. “Now is the time to use the report to start conversations at the local level,” she said. “In Madison, we could do it around the Farmer’s Market — someplace where people can discuss it and make people think more about the issue in a way that ends the confusion.”

Amasino and Kavazanjian both mentioned that the U.S. has made big mistakes with technology in the past and that can make it hard for people to identify with scientific facts.

Amasino believes that any Americans who are confused by the issue should listen to the farmers. “As long as there are no health concerns for farmers, animals or the consumers, farmers should have the ability to decide how to run their farms,” he said.

Kavazanjian believes farmers have become smarter and better at doing their jobs. “People don’t realize we have evolved this technology on the farm so we are using really good science,” she said. “Maybe that’s the message we need to get to people. I hope science prevails. That’s all I can say. We have this good science and I hope (consumers) will get smarter about it.”


Rob Schultz has won multiple writing awards at the state and national levels and covers an array of topics for the Wisconsin State Journal in south-central and southwestern Wisconsin.