Will GMO outrage fade like tractor outrage did?
In recent months, I've started listening more to podcasts than to traditional radio as I drive. This is, in large part, because of the fact that we've launched the Agweek Podcast (look for it on Apple Podcasts or Google Play Music). But part of it is that it allows me to hear about eclectic topics without having to change the station as I out-drive radio signals.
I was all caught up on my regular shows the other day and started looking for other options. National Public Radio's Throughline — a podcast that looks at the historical connection to modern headlines — caught my eye, in part because the most recent episode at that time (Jan. 1) looked, in part, at public concern about the advent of tractors.
The hosts, Rund Abdelfatah and Ramtin Arablouei, talked about how tractors made farm work more efficient and lowered food prices, but they also drove many farmers out of business. Farms got bigger, and people who couldn't make it had to find other ways to live. Additionally, industries that benefited from the use of horses in agriculture fought the progress being made by tractors for decades until even the Horse Association of America — formed to lobby against the use of tractors — had to capitulate. The battle even included a tractors-versus-horses competition in Fargo, in which several horses died due to extreme heat. The tractors won.
The episode also looked at the long resistance many had to coffee, as well as how telephones ushered women into the workplace (because they were superior operators). The conversations in the show were all about how if an innovation has enough benefits, even the outrage over its unintended consequences dies down over time.
The episode was looking at current fears of artificial intelligence as it looked back at these seemingly long-gone issues. And while artificial intelligence (think autonomous farming) is certainly a topic of interest in agriculture, the issue that the episode made me think of was genetic modification.
Given the number of non-GMO labels and advertisements and outrage, it seems that we're still in the thick of the "people are scared" stage of development.
I, for one, am not scared. My dad and grandpa grew sugar beets when I was a kid. When fields got especially weedy, cleaning the weeds out by hand was the only option. We'd end up hoeing the worst ones ourselves, as no work crews were interested. "Hoeing" might not be the right word; some years, the only way to battle the weeds was with machetes. Up and down the rows we'd go, in the heat of summer, acre after acre.
Dad and grandpa moved on from sugar beets before the approval of Roundup-ready beet seeds. But we still were pleased when those got approved. We were confident in the safety of the science and we knew very well from experience that there was an obvious benefit to it.
I think part of the consumer outrage over GMOs is that the (very few) approved GMOs have mostly agronomic benefits. Thanks to those tractor innovations that Throughline talked about, there aren't as many of us in farming anymore. Many people can't imagine how much these innovations benefit those of us on the farm. Even if it eventually benefits them with lower food prices, those dots are harder to connect.
I think the tipping point eventually will come, though. Consumer-important traits, like non-browning Arctic Apples, eventually will show the benefits to everyone, and the outrage over GMOs will die down. The question is, how long will it take?