Watch out for Anti-GMO Fake-out [Opinion]

Watch out for Anti-GMO Fake-out [Opinion]

Probably one of the most overused terms of the past year has been that of “fake news.” From the President down, those words are thrown on just about anything whether it is truly fake or doesn’t comply with your world view. I’ve seen plenty of pretty questionable stories or memes shared in my social media feed in the past couple of years. It is awfully easy to hit that share or retweet button if it is something that favors your position or makes the opposition look bad. I was not surprised to learn that internet trolls were stirring up fights among opposing sides during the Presidential election. The federal indictment of 13 Russian nationals only confirmed something that has been going on for some time. Those charged used fake American personas, social media platforms, and other online media to conduct “information warfare” on the public. You can argue whether it influenced the election, but there is no question it is happening.

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I first learned of this type of thing several years ago when visiting a popular news website. When you would click on a news story, the comments section was filled with pure vitriol and petty arguments. Upon investigation by the website in question, it turned out many of those comments were coming out of Russia with the intention of sowing discord among Americans.

Why is this important for us in agriculture? The Des Moines Register recently reported on research being conducted by Shawn Dorius, an Associate Professor of sociology at Iowa State University, which unveiled Russian funding for and promotion of articles that question the safety of GMOs in farming.

Russia is among about three dozen countries that have banned growing GMO crops; so this trolling is partly aimed at suggesting Russian crops are an ecologically clean and safe alternative to genetically engineered food. The research also shows the purpose of the Russian action was to create division among Americans. My social media feeds certainly show that division between the pro- and anti-GMO forces. And, it is frustrating when you see much of it is based on emotion and often false information.

Why is this important to specialty crop agriculture? After all, GMOs are few and far between in specialty crops. It is important because this technology could bring important solutions to agricultural problems in our crops — like a genetically modified citrus tree resistant to HLB or a tomato plant immune to bacterial spot. Those already are in development by scientists here in Florida.

But, what is more concerning is anti-GMO forces are turning their attention to new breeding techniques and scientific breakthroughs. One of those technologies is CRISPR, a gene-editing technique that takes away the need to introduce “foreign” DNA into a species like in GMOs. It has huge potential in human medicine and plant breeding. I am not surprised to hear that anti-GMO campaigners are turning their attention toward these new technologies. I believe it is driven more by anti-corporate and anti-capitalist sentiments than anything to do with safety and the environment.

It seems that if we listened to the anti-GMO arguments, we would freeze plant breeding and innovation in time and stifle advancements in productivity and other positive traits. Of course, we must approach CRISPR ethically, because it is an extremely powerful tool. But, it would be a shame to deny this to agriculture and a world of hungry people it can benefit.