Researcher Doug Powell: `It's all about being able to tell stories' Widespread consumer acceptance of genetically enhanced crops isn't about science, it's about status, according to food safety expert Doug Powell.

Powell, research leader and an assistant professor in the department of plant agriculture at the University of Guelph in Guelph, Ontario, Canada, says, "In the new cultural playground of today, it's not enough to tell people who you are by what you wear, it's what brand of bottled water you drink. It's all about being able to tell stories."

Many people think genetically modified organisms, and products made with these gene-enhanced commodities, are dangerous because that's what they are told by organizations like Greenpeace, Powell told an audience of agricultural lenders at the North American Agricultural Finance Conference in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.

Powell believes confusion is the hallmark of technological change, whether the new technology in question is a genetically enhanced crop or a computer. All new technology is oversold, resulting in unrealistic expectations, he says. "When a new product is first introduced you get six months of `look how perfect this is,' then you hear that the sky is falling, and then there is a leveling out where realistic talk and facts create acceptance of the technology. It's a lot easier to say the sky is falling then to give the long scientific explanation."

"We need to remember that a lot of groups have a vested interest in making products GMO-free instead of establishing tolerance levels for products containing genetically modified crops," Powell says. "You have to take it all with a grain of salt, because there are some games going on. When people say exports to Europe are down, don't believe them. Exports are not down. In fact, soybean and corn exports are up and it's mostly genetically modified corn and soybeans being exported."

The truth of the GMO safety debate, he says, is that genetically enhanced crops undergo much more testing than conventional crops. According to Powell, the anti-biotechnology hype is not about safety. It's about non-tariff trade barriers. "Would I feed my three daughters Frosted Flakes made with genetically engineered corn? Of course I would. In fact, I would prefer to because genetically enhanced corn contains lower levels of microtoxins than conventional corn varieties," he says.

"I'm as confident as I can be, based on all known science, that this stuff is safe," Powell says. "Agriculture is all about trade-offs, and don't think consumers can't make those trade-offs, because they can. Still, there will be people who don't trust science. For those people, give them a choice of products."

Testing his theories about consumers' ability to accept transgenic products when provided with the scientific evidence of the safety of such products, Powell initiated a first-of-its-kind farm-to-fork study.

In his study, genetically engineered Bt sweet corn and Bt potatoes are grown in side-by-side on-farm field trials with conventional varieties. Organic growing technology, specifically the use of Bt as a foliar spray to control crop pests, is also included in the real-life study.

Consumers, journalists and farmers are provided full access to the 250-acre farm near Hillsburgh, Ontario, Canada, by way of an almost two-mile self-guided walking tour. More than 1,000 people toured the farm's walking trail this year, which is marked with 34 signs that educate visitors about plantings, treatments, cover crops, and crop varieties planted.

Since the experiment's harvest began in late summer, both the genetically enhanced and conventional varieties of sweet corn and potatoes are being sold side-by-side at a farm market on the model farm where they were grown. The genetically enhanced varieties are clearly identified, and a complete production history, including the number of insecticide sprays and chemicals used, is provided for the produce being sold.

As of Oct. 9, 7,800 cobs of Bt sweet corn have been sold at the farm market, compared to 5,190 cobs of conventional corn, according to Powell. "The individuals responsible for making food purchasing decisions every day are apparently much better equipped to make decisions about risks and benefits than some people give them credit for," he says.

The model farm, Powell says, was designed to provide consumers and farmers with information regarding the comparative costs, benefits, tastes and consumer preferences of food produced using organic, conventional and genetically-engineered technologies for pest management.

"We can argue back and forth and I can overload you with scientific evidence. But, where the rubber hits the road is in the grocery store," Powell says. "The fact of the matter is customers won't put up with impurities, like worms in sweet corn, that are there because pesticide treatments were reduced. They want the good-looking stuff."

Powell says more direct research is needed to help farmers decide what technologies are most appropriate for their farming operations and to help consumers wade through the growing mythologies regarding various methods of crop production. "Agriculture is all about trade-offs, and we hope to bring those considerations to a public audience.