Editor's Note: Covering GMOs is long overdue

Futures editor Holly Whetstone says that despite the controversy, the time to talk about the science behind GMOs is now.

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As editor of Futures magazine for the past six years, I hate to admit that this is the first time we’ve delved deeply into the issues related to genetically modified organisms (commonly called GMOs). It’s long overdue. Sure, we’ve writtenstories about GMOs in the past, but we’ve never dedicated an entire issue to this highly charged topic, “So,” you may be asking yourself at this point, “Why now?”

A 2017 study from the Center for Food Integrity revealed that the vast majority (80 percent) of consumers want to know more about their food and where it comes from, but lack a direct connection to agriculture. Increased population growth is physically moving more people in our society away from farms and into more urban, more populous places. The result has been fewer connections between consumers and the farms where their food is produced.

I believe the scientific community can help bridge the disconnect between consumers and farming. But there’s a problem: the public doesn’t particularly trust scientists. In the first MSU Food Literacy and Engagement Poll, conducted in 2017, only 59 percent of respondents indicated that they trusted academic scientists when it comes to the health and safety of food. That’s higher than their counterparts in government (49 percent) and industry (33 percent) received, but still discouragingly low.

Science-related publications such as Futures can and should help share scientific data in ways consumers can easily grasp and understand – especially on such important issues as GMOs. At the same time, I won’t pretend that covering this topic doesn’t make me uncomfortable, because it does. The scientific community must do a better job of listening and engaging in productive, nonconfrontational discussions about GMOs. I hope this issue of Futures will be the start of that effort.

Ironically, as our team was in the throes of researching and writing the issue, the news broke that “Bill Gates calls GMOs ‘perfectly healthy’ – and scientists say he’s right.” The story sparked a flurry of conflicting comments and enough information and misinformation to confuse even the brightest consumers. It also made me wonder “Is this really the right time for us to discuss GMOs in these pages?” Eventually I was convinced anew that this is the right time. We’ve put this off long enough.

This issue of Futures is just the start of our focus on GMOs. Food@MSU, an initiative led by the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources that aims to spark meaningful conversations on food and where it comes from, plans to host an Our Table discussion on GMOs this fall. As usual, the public will be invited to attend, listen and ask questions.

Details of the gathering will be announced on the food.msu.edu website later this summer. Until then, I welcome your feedback on this issue – I think.

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