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Austin Alonzo, editor of WATT Poultry USA, examines hot topics surrounding the US poultry industry as it deals with a changing consumer, emerging animal welfare concerns and other disruptive challenges.
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Anti-science attitude threatens agriculture, humanity

Grain silos
First world consumers need to understand the role genetically modified organisms can, and will, play in feeding billions of people far into the future. Otherwise, a key technology will be lost.| Bigstock.com

Whether or not humanity will be able to feed itself in the future depends on our ability to use powerful genetic engineering technology.

August 11, 2017

According to today’s pop science gleaned from social media, news, blogs and shock-umentaries, it’s all about what’s not in your food. Gluten-free, steroid-free, hormone-free, cage-free, cruelty-free, the list goes on and on.

Consumers want to know more about what’s in their food and where it’s coming from. When they look for answers, there’s no guarantee they’ll find factual information from a credible source. Endless free publishing possibilities on the Internet give everyone, for better or worse, a platform.

This mix of marketing innuendo, appeals to emotion and junk science helped spawn the fear of genetically modified organisms. Rob Saik, the founder of the Agri-Trend Group who spoke about the future of agriculture at March’s Midwest Poultry Federation Convention, said recent research showed 82 percent of consumers think food containing GMOs should be labeled. Moreover, the third largest health concern for consumers – behind Salmonella and E. coli – is GMOs in food.

Rob Saik speaks at Midwest Poultry Federation convention in St. Paul.

Rob Saik, the founder of the Agri-Trend Group, speaks about the future of agriculture at the Midwest Poultry Federation Convention. | Austin Alonzo

It’s understandable why, to an under-informed audience, GMO sounds scary. A consumer could fear humanity created Frankenstein’s monster by altering nature to serve our ends and that there’s some unintended consequence of eating “frankenfood.” The abundance of products touting their GMO-free status and the staying power of those preaching against GMOs prove these concerns are prevalent. Saik said this is lumped in with science’s declining status in education and public opinion's growing divergence from scientific thought.

But, when GMO-free becomes the rule of the day, humanity is stripped of a critical technology. Genetic engineering yielded crops using less water, pesticide and fertilizer to produce more food with greater nutritional value. In the future, GMOs will help feed more people using less resources, but if society rejects the technology millions will go hungry. He pointed to golden rice: The grain is genetically modified to contain beta-carotene and vitamin A and it could help nourish millions in the developing world. But it’s spent the better part of the last two decades unused thanks to campaigns by activist groups.

GMOs, and genetic engineering on a broader scale, will help feed more people with less resources, but only if these tools are allowed to be used. If humanity wants to make use of the technology, consumers will have to understand the science and come to see GMO as a positive rather than negative. Saik is producing a documentary project – KNOW GMO – fighting back against misinformation and trumpeting the virtues of genetic engineering. He's got enough material for a feature length movie, but not the funding. For now, the documentary is being distributed as a web series via the project's website and social media.

The same appeals to emotion, in many cases pushed by the same activists, are being used against animal agriculture on all fronts. In poultry, cage-free, slow-growing broilers and antibiotic-free are bucking science ostensibly to serve market demands.

Just as with GMOs, farmers need to take a larger role in the conversation and start educating the public on what they are doing and how that benefits the earth on a larger scale. Farmers are more credible with consumers than any other group, Saik said, and the majority of people can be swayed with education. If silent, the vocal minority will continue to dictate the agenda at the expense of the farmer and likely hungry mouths all over the world.