In the days leading up to a panel discussion on GMOs put on by Climate One, I started getting nervous. I was slated to appear with Rob Fraley, head of technology for Monsanto; organic rice farmer Jessica Lundberg; and Andy Kimbrell, head of the Center for Food Safety. Monsanto has a hard-driving reputation, obviously, and when I’d last heard Kimbrell speak in person he’d been a veritable machine gun of tweet-worthy sound bites condemning industrial agriculture.
This was likely to be trench warfare, I thought, and I’d be in stuck in the middle, crawling through the barbed wire, with live fire rattling overhead.
But that’s not how it turned out. If anything the panelists were cordial to a fault, talking past each other and avoiding points of disagreement. Well, let me avoid false equivalence here: Kimbrell got his licks in (though more delicately than usual), and Lundberg was straightforward and clear (but she didn’t get much time to talk); Monsanto’s Fraley stayed on message rather than taking up the debate.
When moderator Greg Dalton pitched Fraley his first question, Fraley started with another subject: his biography. How he grew up on a farm in Illinois, how he came to study at the University of California San Francisco, how he became entranced with the emerging field of biotechnology. Throughout the evening he refused to play any defense, and instead focused on common ground. He was just friendly uncle Rob, the guy everyone wants on their softball team.
I guess I can understand why he did this. Fraley understood that he wasn’t going to convince people by responding to exaggerations or misstatements. Why would anti-GMO campaigners believe anything coming from a Monsanto honcho? So instead of trying to argue the facts, he simply made the case for his own humanity.
That’s not to say that there were no contentious moments. When Fraley declined to respond to Kimbrell’s assertion that companies had failed to prove that GMOs were safe, the moderator asked me for a reality check.
It’s absolutely true that there’s no proof of safety, I said. It’s also true that no one has ever proved it’s safe to walk down the street. If we required proof of safety we would have no new technologies. iPhones and solar panels and Yo-yos would be waiting for approval pending further testing. The real question is, where do we set the bar? How much evidence do we need? The fact is that GMO technology has been tested far more than just about any other technology we’ve introduced. It’s certainly been tested more than the other food modification techniques the seed companies use.
There’s so much more that could be said and asked about this: Perhaps there are special reasons to set the bar higher for GMOs. Perhaps all that science was corrupted by a massive biotech conspiracy. But instead of anyone concurring or challenging me, we just moved on.
Throughout the event, it was disappointing to watch talking points fly by without anyone trying to assess their veracity. Most of the time people walk through life gathering evidence to support their preconceptions, but there are folks out there (like Climate One) who still believe that a careful weighing of evidence through civil argument can change minds. Even if there’s only one person listening with a truly open mind, that person deserves our attention.
But there was also something positive to come out of the overabundance of agreement. All of us agreed that Jonathan Foley’s five-point plan for feeding the world (most recently published in National Geographic) was spot on: Freeze agriculture’s footprint, grow more food on existing farms, increase efficiency, shift diets away from meat, and reduce waste.
Think about that for a second: A Monsanto executive, an organic farmer, an anti-industrial farming activist, and a journalist all concur on the path forward. That represents a damn broad coalition. And maybe that means that all those facts I was so keen to flesh out really don’t matter. If we’re all in agreement about where we should be headed, maybe it’s time to move past the GMO debate and get on with the journey.
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