The plant biotechnology industry, which, until now, treated those who questioned genetically engineered plants as unwashed Luddites who weren’t worth anyone’s time or attention, is well into a new approach. Through GMO Answers, an offshoot of the Council for Biotechnology Information, the industry is doing the digital equivalent of renting a big hall, inviting everyone to attend, taking all questions, and staying until the last one is answered and everybody has gone home. “The industry understands that questions have gone unanswered for a long time and wants to do a better job of answering them in order to be transparent and help consumers come to their own conclusions on GMOs,” a source with project knowledge told Food Safety News. While GMO Answers has received and answered about 500 questions from the public since last July, it’s now going to be answering the most common questions about genetically engineered plants that were identified in a new national survey. The survey was conducted in order to identify, for the first time, the top 10 questions consumers have about GMOs and to open up the conversation on biotechnology’s role in agriculture. Over the next several weeks, scientists, farmers, doctors and other experts will be answering one of the top 10 questions each week on the GMO Answers website and via Twitter. Ipsos, a global market research company, conducted a national random telephone survey of 1,006 American adults ages 18 and older. Participants were asked: “The following are questions some people have asked about GMOs. Which of the following questions around the use of GMOs would you be most interested in having answered?” From a list of 23 environmental-, business- and health-related questions regarding GMOs, respondents identified these questions as the top 10 they want answered:

  1. Do GMOs cause cancer?
  2. Are GMOs causing an increase in allergies?
  3. Are big companies forcing farmers to grow GMOs?
  4. Are GMOs increasing the price of food?
  5. Are GMOs contaminating organic food crops?
  6. Why aren’t long-term health studies conducted on GMO plants?
  7. Are GMOs causing an increase in the use of pesticides?
  8. Why do GMO companies seem like they are so against labeling GMO foods?
  9. Are GMOs contributing to the death of bees and butterflies?
  10. If livestock eat genetically modified grain, will there be GMOs in my meat?

“A national dialogue is taking place about GMOs, and it’s important for us to listen to the questions consumers are asking so we can provide the information to help address their concerns,” said Cathleen Enright, Ph.D., spokesperson for GMO Answers. “We are committed to transparency about how our food is grown, including an open discussion about GMOs. This is why we asked independent, third-party experts to answer these questions publicly. Our goal is to ensure consumers have the information they need to make up their own minds about GMOs.” Rather than the usual practice of just standing behind the industry association, GMO Answers discloses up front its list of principal sponsors, including BASF, Bayer CropScience, Dow AgroSciences LLC, DuPont, Monsanto Company and Syngenta. Its secondary sponsors are the American Farm Bureau Federation, American Seed Trade Association, American Soybean Association, National Association of Wheat Growers, National Corn Growers Association, National Cotton Council, and the South Dakota Agri-Business Association. Questions not selected in the top 10, but have been the focus of conversations on GMO Answers include: if the development of GMOs is unnatural, if GMOs are causing gluten intolerance, if GMOs are contributing to obesity, if GMOs are contributing to infertility, if GMO companies are suing farmers, and if GMOS are contributing to the growth of super weeds. “We recognize that consumers have questions about our products, and we need to do a better job explaining our technology, role in agriculture and the safety of our crops. In the coming weeks, we invite consumers to come back and follow the answers to the top 10 questions offered by experts at GMO Answers and become a part of this important conversation,” Enright added. The industry’s answer to the cancer question, already posted on the site, was provided by Dr. Kevin Folta, interim chairman and associate professor of the Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida. He responded, “The short answer is no, there is absolutely zero reputable evidence that GMO foods cause cancer.” Various agricultural and scientific experts will answer another top 10 question each week. The same global public relations shop behind the GMO Answers campaign last year coined the term “Food e-Vangelists” for the growing number of influential online food and agriculture opinion makers of Generation Y (the Millennials). The New York City-based public relations firm, Ketchum, came up with the label after completing its Food2020 worldwide survey last year, after which it warned the industry that “typical marketing practices aren’t effective with Food e-Vangelists.” Ketchum further told the food industry that these folks are not a fringe group and that, “in addition to utilizing blog and social media to share their opinions about food issues, Food e-Vangelists expect companies to engage with consumers via social media as a tool for direct and open communication.”