At the 2017 D.W. Brooks Lecture and Award held on Nov. 7 in the Georgia Center’s Mahler Auditorium, molecular biologist Nina Fedoroff gave her talk entitled, "The GMO Wars: What do we do when scientists and citizens deeply disagree?"

Genetically modified organisms allow scientists to modify crops to eliminate undesirable traits. According to Fedoroff, GMOs are necessary to sustain the growing population but have an unfair reputation as being unsafe.

“GMOs have been blamed for farmer suicides in India, tumors in rats, every manner of human count, from autism to obesity and infertility to cancer,” Fedoroff said. “But none of this is true. There is a growing body of what can only be called fake science about GMOs.” 

As an example of this “fake science,” Fedoroff cited a common, flawed study about tumors in rats caused by genetically modified corn. The study was retracted by its publication, but Fedoroff said it continues to be used against GMOs. 

“Contemporary controversy around GMOs is driven by both individuals and organizations that promote and exploit GMO fears,” Fedoroff said. “The bottom line is that fears sell a lot better than facts.”

Fedoroff said legislation mandating the label of GMO food ingredients is not about promoting consumer awareness, but instead to promote “stigma” around GMO foods and cited statements from organic food groups and lobbyists. 

“[Mandated food labeling] might be acceptable if organically grown food were really better for us and the environment, but it’s not,” Fedoroff said. “Organic food is more expensive than conventionally grown food because it requires more land, and 50 years of studies have failed to find any significant nutritional difference between organically grown food.”

She closed by saying that humans must overcome their fear-based misgivings about GMOs to sustain a growing population in a changing climate, but it is challenging to change these beliefs.

“We are surprisingly good at doubling down on [misbeliefs], even when they are challenged by a mountain of evidence,” Fedoroff said. “Will we continue to ignore facts and cling to our fear-based beliefs about GMOs? Will we have wisdom to invest in the scientific and technological advances that we will need to provide everyone with enough to eat, even as the climate continues to warm and our numbers continue to grow?"

Written by: Olivia Adams