Are science-based facts alone enough to win the battle of public perception and reception of GEOs?

On March 2, 2004 voters in Mendocino County California passed proposition H, making it unlawful to grow genetically modified organisms within the county, in an effort to “…protect the county’s agriculture, environment, economy and private property from genetic pollution…”.

My first reaction was to associate proposition H with a popular hemorrhoid remedy, but there is nothing to soothe irritation in proposition H. Quite the contrary, proposition H is based on illiterate nonsense, which clearly eluded not only the 15,746 voters who supported it, but apparently, also nearly every reporter who spread the story. In particular, I refer to Section 3 of the proposition, which states:

“Definitions (b) DNA or deoxyribonucleic acid means a complex protein that is present in every cell of an organism and is the ‘blueprint’ for the organism’s development.”

I would expect even a 7th grader to be able to debunk the glaring mistakes in this definition. But before I get sidetracked let me add further details about proposition H and Mendocino County. After all, I would not find the proposition H any more appealing, if it had been written factually correct. The proposition was spearheaded by Els Cooperrider who is variously described in the media as owner of an organic brewery, retired medical research scientist (20 years), botanist, landscape designer, environmental talk show host, organic gardener and who may or may not live in a cabin without electricity and running water, but always has a phone number listed. Some of her rationale behind this initiative include that genetically engineered grapes could pollinate organic grapes, which would thus be no longer certifiably organic (New York Times March 2, 2004). Of course, there are currently federal provisions for such accidental contamination, however unlikely. In Mendocino County 3500 acres (or 19.4% of a total of 18,000 acres of agricultural land) are listed as organic wineries or farms. Genetically engineered grapes are not yet commercially available, and grapes are not grown from seed, so her concern for genetic pollution is difficult to understand, when rationally examined. How transgenic soybean, corn or cotton could cause this genetic ‘pollution’ to grapes through pollination is beyond my capacity to imagine.
Furthermore, it is puzzling to me that prop H includes the definition:

“3 (a) Genetically modified organisms means specific organisms whose native intrinsic DNA has been intentionally altered or amended with non species specific DNA. For purposes of this ordinance, genetic modification does not include organisms created by traditional breeding or hybridization, or to microorganisms created by moving genes or gene segments between unrelated bacteria”.

Therefore, according to Mendocino County’s passed proposition, not only is it OK to engineer and to cultivate transgenic microorganisms (e.g. yeasts, , fungi, and bacteria, even weapons-grade Anthrax), but crop plants engineered with same-species DNA are also not banned. This glaring example of a logical somersault exemplifies the organic farming mindset at its finest.

Several recent “Points to Ponder” authors have pointed out the importance of speaking out against activists, of debunking “experts” who are speaking outside of their area of expertise, and of informing the public with rational science-based facts. Those are laudable recommendations, and I wholeheartedly applaud their efforts. Unfortunately, this approach is not working. Countering emotional messages with reason, fact and science has not increased positive public awareness of genetic engineering in particular and of biotechnology in general. To the contrary, the media and Internet ooze with gross misrepresentations, opinion by “phony” scientists and experts, out and out lies, rumor mongering, and negative reporting. Anti-biotech are still claiming that transgenic corn is still killing monarch butterflies and contaminating land races in Mexico even though these issues were debunked years ago. Even science-based news magazines, such as Chemical & Engineering News, tend to slant reports involving genetic engineering in a slightly negative light.

If our current approach is not working should we change our tactics. Should we go on the offensive, and use the same opinion-shaping techniques that have been used against us to our advantage? Let us run an advertising campaign showing the positive aspects of biotechnology, including genetic engineering, but loaded with gut wrenching emotion, and presented in a way that directly targets “hostile” activist groups such as Greenpeace, Earth-First, PETA, Earth/Animal Liberation Front, Green party extremists, Friends of the Earth International and countless others (name your “favorite”). Then, let us back up our statements with calm, collected facts (which we have and they don’t).

Let me give you an example: Show a photo of an obviously starved African child, subtitled Fed by Greenpeace Lies.

Would you turn the page? Or would you read the caption paragraph explaining how tons of US Food aid corn was not distributed to these starving children, because it was genetically engineered to produce an insecticide that is so safe that even organic gardeners use the version made by bacteria. Corn that the American public has been consuming for nearly a decade, without any ill health effects. Support Biotechnology!

How about the image of a blind Asian girl, whose sight could have been saved by the beta-carotene in Golden Rice, again with a shocking title, followed by an explanatory paragraph. Or the picture where a healthy all-American boy (subtitled vaccinated, treated with antibiotics, and organic chemicals for head lice) and his faithful dog (subtitled wormed, vaccinated, treated with flea and tick repellent) are contrasted to a fly-ridden, pink-eyed calf plastered with pus and diarrhea, subtitled “certified organic”. The paragraph following can then explain the advantages of vaccinations, responsible antibiotic use, and application of wormers and insect repellents, all of which are examples of applied biotechnology. Show a version of the diet we would be expected to survive on if PETA or ALF had their way. Compare the lethality of car crashes, cigarette induced lung cancer to the 1 in 3 rate of starvation if we would go 100% organic globally. I am just getting warmed up here. Each ad should target a particular group specifically and by name, have a shocking visual image, a calm factual discussion of the particular area of biotechnology that prevents us from having to live that way.

Although media reports vary to the actual amount of money that CropLife and other supporters of biotechnology spent in Mendocino County, $500,000 is most often bandied about. According to Els Cooperrider in The Sacramento Bee (March 5, 2004), there are currently at least 9 other California counties considering similar propositions. As Michael Gann, co-chair of Humbolt Green Genes, a Green Party branch that wants to ban genetically engineered organisms in Humbolt County stated, “we copied their words”. (San Jose Mercury News, March 4th 2004). This is not a west coast phenomenon, other states considering ban on GMO crops as well. If CropLife, biotech companies and agricultural organizations that support this technology (such as Farm Bureau) spend $10-30 million on a nationwide ad campaign outlined above, they might prevent the passing of more proposition Hs, not only in California, but the rest of the nation, and it would ultimately be cheaper than to fight county-by-county or state by state. Of course local laws can be overturned at the state or federal level, but without a base of public support for these measures, there will only be a continuance of resentment toward the “big bad biotech industry” (usually personified as “Monsanto”) and their lobbyists, forcing the issues onto the public. Part of the appeal that caused voters to support proposition H was based on backing a perceived “underdog” in this fight; of a small community against industrial giants with deep pockets and hidden agendas.

In the meantime, why not proudly display a bumper sticker: “I am a genetic engineer, and I am ahead of you” “Genetic engineers work at the speed of life”, or “Genetic engineers give DNA a new twist”.

After ranting for a little bit I must come back down to earth and say as scientist we must remain objective in our statements and criticisms but propositions and laws like the one recently passed in Mendocino County really get to me!

Juliane Essig
Harold Trick