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GMOs: ‘No big deal’

By Staff | Mar 21, 2014

FROM LEFT ARE Mark Kenney, a farmer from Ankeny, his wife Julie Kenney, and blogger Nicole Patterson, listening to Nathanael Johnson, a food columnist for Grist, share his perspectives on GMOs during a recent meeting in Ankeny, sponsored by the Iowa Food and Family Project.

ANKENY – Think you know how a liberal, West Coast journalist and food columnist feels about GMOs? Think again.

“I started out thinking GMOs are bad,” said Nathana0el Johnson, “but I wanted to look at the evidence and find out what’s going on.”

Johnson toured two central Iowa farms in early March and spoke in Ankeny on March 10 at an event sponsored by the Iowa Food and Family Project.

Johnson said he was surprised by what he found as he dug into the GMO debate for Grist, a publication which covers environmental issues.

His more recent series of Grist articles ranged from “In the Insecticide Wars, GMOs Have So Far Been a Force for Good,” to “What I Learned From Six Months of GMO Research: None of it Matters.”

GREG REINHART, left, a farmer from Boone, explains to Nathanael Johnson and the audience why he values GMO traits in the sweet corn he grows and sells at the Des Moines Farmers Market.

“I imagined about seven people would respond to my articles,” he said, “and they would all be well-informed.”

Johnson said his articles attracted thousands of comments online.

“I wasn’t prepared for the venom from people on both sides of the issue.”

Johnson quickly realized that the GMO debate runs much deeper than crop genetics

“I suspect GMOs are a metaphor,” he said, “a stand-in for all that is vaguely frightening in our food system.

“I wanted to look at the evidence and find out what’s going on.” —Nathanael Johnson West Coast journalist

“People attach their mistrust of agriculture and fear of the unknown to this metaphor. So let’s diffuse the metaphor.”

Learning from farmers

That’s one of the reasons why the IFFP’s advisory team was interested in connecting with Johnson, said Aaron Putze, director of external relations for the Iowa Soybean Association and IFFP coordinator.

“People desire confidence that their food is wholesome and safe,” Putze said, “does no harm to the environment and is good for local communities.

“They also value honest dialogue and thoughtful opinions about food-related topics. The opportunity to engage with Nathanael Johnson and host an audience that cares about these issues helps move the conversation forward in a way that benefits farmers and food purchasers.”

Johnson said one reason some consumers oppose GMOs is they see no direct benefit from the technology.

“All they see is the benefit going to some corporation,” he said, “which they hate from the pit of their gut.

“Instead, they want their food to help make the world a better place.”

This “better place” includes growing food that’s more delicious, and improving local communities so they’re more sustainable, pleasant places to be, said Johnson.

His farm tours included Dave Struthers, a pork producer near Collins, and David Ausberger, who raises corn and soybeans near Jefferson.

“I showed Nathanael many of the things we’re doing for conservation and explained why we’re doing them,” said Ausberger, the 2013 Iowa Soybean Association Environmental Leader Award recipient and 2014 American Soybean Association Conservation Legacy Award winner. “I noted that almost every farm is doing things better than they were 10 or even five years ago, but I hope that we look back in another 10 years and say we were off to a good start in 2014.”

As Johnson took photos of residue in a cornfield, he learned why the stalks were there.

“He had no idea that there would be residue on the surface to hold soil and nutrients in place,” Ausberger said.

This “boots on the ground” perspective is invaluable, said Heather Lilienthal, ISA’s communications manager. “If we truly want to connect with people like Nathanael, we need to listen and understand them and their concerns and needs.

“Personal connections are still key. Once you get to know and understand someone, you’ve broken barriers.”

GMOs make sense

These personal connections were strengthened during Johnson’s presentation at the Iowa FFA Enrichment Center, which attracted more than 150 farmers, consumers, bloggers and college students.

“One thing that surprised me about Nathanael was his commitment to seeking the truth,” said Haley Banwart, 20, an Iowa State University sophomore majoring in ag communications and journalism. “Growing up on a farm near West Bend has given me one view of the GMO issue.

“I appreciated learning about Nathanael’s experience and his motivation to know the facts, even if they were against what he originally believed in.”

Johnson acknowledges that GMOs play a useful role in modern agriculture.

“An as insurance policy that protects against harmful insects,” he said, “droughts and other adverse conditions, GMOs come in handy.

“I think it makes sense to support GMO uses that give us small environmental improvements.”

These small improvements can have a big impact that benefits consumers, noted Greg Reinhart, who farms near Boone, and sells fresh produce at the Des Moines Farmers Market.

“Most people don’t want insects in their food,” Reinhart said, “and one of the most successful tools I’ve used to reach this goal is GMO sweet corn.”

Reinhart was a panelist during Johnson’s presentation.

“We want safe solutions for our family and customers,” Reinhart said, “and we embrace new technologies like GMO sweet corn that help take the risk out of food production.”

Johnson said he appreciated insights like this.

“Transparency isn’t dumping facts on people,” he said. “It’s addressing people’s fears about the food supply.”

Lilienthal encourages others involved in food production, from farmers to scientists to retailers, to continue their outreach efforts.

“That’s what the IFFP is all about,” she said, “building confidence and creating connections between food producers and consumers.”

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