When I was in college, I spent a semester studying in Greece. I enjoyed the country, relished in the art and architecture, toured aromatic olive groves, and met many interesting people. Things changed about two months in: NATO began a bombing campaign against the nearby Serbs, a people that had close religious ties to the Greeks. The campaign was led by the United States, and it didn’t take long for the impassioned Greeks to show their dislike for America’s actions. All over the nation, anti-U.S.A. graffiti showed up, with the “S” replaced by a swastika.
It was chilling. I learned, in a very immediate and personal way, how people can be suddenly provoked by passion. Luckily, I also witnessed how, even amid those passions, an activist can perceive an institution and its individuals so differently.
Those who grow most of America’s corn and soybeans are often portrayed as villains in the public’s eye — judgement cast with equal parts against the individual, the business, the lifestyle, and the industry. The term “GMO” is tossed around like a dirty word; the emotions behind genetically engineered products have created a toxic environment for discussion. Throw in a comparison with organic, and we’re lucky if we can restrain the decay of the conversation for more than a few rounds.
Passion often outperforms science in the public dialogue. As organic activism grows, many of today’s farmers are put on the defensive at every turn. Most days, you can go to an organic-centric website and be greeted by story after story attacking GMOs.
The ironic — or, perhaps, unfortunate — thing is, at the 2016 Ag Media Summit, Robb Fraley (Monsanto’s Chief Technology Officer and the father of agricultural biotechnology), said that there’s no reason genetic engineering and organic production can’t exist and progress side by side. Heck, many people marching against Monsanto don’t even realize that the company they’re complaining about has a long history of working with organic farmers.
The organic activist movement is social savvy, and the loudest voice in the room is typically the one that gets heard. The problem — and this is the reason that the select few who truly stand up for modern farming practices push back as hard as they do — is that organic activists don’t sell their products because they’re good at touting organic production but rather because they are skilled at vilifying conventional production. The payoff is at the expense of others, not on the merit of self. People who speak in favor of biotechnology companies are labeled as shills or corporate mouthpieces, despite clear and honest assurances that there is no stake aside from wanting to promote the best farming techniques available today. (Even I had to fork over my own money to buy my Monsanto ballcap — something as simple as that wasn’t a freebie.)
That brings us to where the institution and the individuals of modern ag are both targeted with zeal. Visit the forums and the Facebook pages of the organic movement. It’s sad that the negativity is so thick that even being in the same room creates tension.
And that’s where Fraley’s hope falls apart. There’s a constant parry and repose that complicates productive discussion. Too often, “GMO” itself is used condescendingly by opponents while being seen as a taboo and unscientific word by supporters (to note, many scientists argue that GMOs can’t be properly discussed because there’s no agreed-upon definition). Can you imagine that? We’re all trying to have a discussion about our food production, and those doing the most talking don’t even agree that they’re talking about the same thing.
Sides can have agendas. Sides are passionate. Sides have families and friends who they’re trying to put the best interests of first. Most of all, sides have perspectives — and that may not be rooted in a farming background or a science background. We have to understand that and adapt to that, as more and more people make their voices heard.
It’s fine to speak from the gut, as long as those words are guided by the mind.
Ryan Tipps is the managing editor for AGDAILY. He has covered farming since 2011, and his writing has been honored by state- and national-level agricultural organizations.