Faculty team and website provide science-based information on GMOs

Screenshot ofhttps://gmo.uconn.edu/.

The phrase GMO creates a strong emotional reaction among many people. GMO stands for genetically modified organism, and although the technology was first used in the medical field to create insulin, the dialogues currently surrounding GMOs are polarized. In our dialogue process, team members from the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources created a space where healthy dialogues on the positive and negative aspects of GMOs can occur. It can be difficult to find science-based information that is understandable. Our working group intends to help bridge the information gap by providing real answers to questions of concern to people today and promoting discussions that help consumers form their own opinions using that science-based information.

There are many points of view concerning GMOs, both pro and con, and often there is a lack of scientific information to provide answers. A panel of UConn experts has created a website called Science of GMOs to serve as an information center for experts, farmers and consumers. The team has twelve members, including Cindy Tian, professor of animal science; Stacey Stearns, educational program administrator for UConn Extension, Bonnie Burr, head of the Department of Extension; and Gerry Berkowitz, professor of plant science, and addresses a variety of GMO topics from food safety and health issues to regulations and public perception.

“We want to bring science-based information to our audiences so they can make informed decisions about GMOs,” Stearns says. “Every member of the team is active in their own realm of the project. There is so much misinformation out there. We wanted to make it easier for people so they could feel comfortable and confident in their choices. We encourage people to find resources, ask questions and learn more.”

In addition to the website, Stearns, Tian, Burr and Robert Bird, professor of business law, are developing an online GMO certificate program called Let’s Talk GMO’s: Creating Consistent Communication Messages. The pilot program will launch in January 2021 for extension educators and land grant communicators, with future sessions open to farmers,  other professionals and consumers.

Says Tian, “The anti-science sentiment is definitely growing world-wide. I think one of the reasons is that we scientists do not do a good job of educating people. We would prefer to stay in the lab with our research. That’s why I decided to become more involved in outreach. We need to do more educating or science will have no place in society. The mainstream media focuses on sensation rather than unbiased information. Consumers need information to do their due diligence.”

To facilitate the idea of open-ended discussions, the group became involved in UConn Dialogue Initiatives, a program designed to promote respectful and open-minded conversations. The team attended meetings and workshops and prepared presentations.

“We learned that simply discussing facts doesn’t work,” Stearns explains. “We have to start with shared values to connect with other people. We are trying to learn more about having conversations that address different perspectives and not make assumptions about other opinions. We need to listen carefully to understand, and then talk to people about their fears instead of simply spouting information.”

“The anti-GMO movement started in Europe and is going global,” Tian notes. “But the movement came from a group of people who do not have a deep understanding of the subject. Many of the people against GMOs are misinformed. How do we go about changing the narrative? It is not about proving the other side is wrong. It’s about having a conversation. What are our common goals? We can all agree that we want safe food for our families, so where do we find information to support that?”

GMO technology was first used in animal science and pharmaceuticals. “Every GMO product has a beautiful story to it,” Tian says. People wanted to generate models for human diseases to enable medical testing that was quicker, more ethical and efficient. Later on, scientists started genetic modification in plants, such as tobacco, to change a plant’s properties for producing pharmaceuticals or disease resistance in crops.”

“GMO plant breeding targets a particular trait by changing the corresponding gene,” Tian explains. “For instance, scientists bred corn that is insect resistant by taking a piece of a gene from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) and inserting it into the corn genome where the Bt produces an insecticidal protein that attacks insects. Organic farmers have been using Bt for years, but instead of spraying the bacteria on the plants several times during the season, the insecticide is expressed within the plant. It’s safe and more profitable for the farmer and reduces the use of synthetic pesticides, a great benefit to the environment.”

Berkowitz agrees that all of the science points to GMOs being safe for humans, but he says there are other factors to consider. His comments showcase a different aspect of the GMO discussion.

“I want people to understand that our system is set up for commercial agriculture, and GMOs are no worse or better than other big ag methods,” he says. “There are a lot of issues in the way we manage our agriculture in this country that are not about human health, but rather about impacts to the environment and impacts on non-target organisms and genetic diversity. There are also areas where commercial agricultural could improve production through attention to soil health and good crop husbandry.”

Berkowitz, “One area of concern with GMO plants is how they affect the ecosystem. For instance, Bt-infused plants may be safe for humans, but what happens when the Bt enters the environment? It is toxic to several varieties of insects. There is a difference between organic gardening, where farmers spray Bt a few times per season, and using Bt-infused plants, where Bt is expressed in every cell of the plant throughout the entire life cycle among millions of acres of crops. Do we have to do that? The selective pressure for mutation and Bt-resistant insects is greater with GMO-infused plants, and it’s already happening.”

On the other hand, Tian says that commercial agriculture producers are satisfying the needs of an expanding population with less available land, and that the primary goal for many farmers, particularly in certain parts of the world, is food security.

What the GMO group all agree on is that continuing the conversation using science-based facts while being open to different viewpoints is the answer to keeping the conversation and research moving forward.

By Kim Colavito Markesich