Iowa Food & Family Project hosts evening of GMO discussion

ANKENY, Iowa - Journalist and author Nathanael Johnson was skeptical of genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) when he began a six-month investigative series about their use in food production. He opposed what they stood for, not necessarily that they were unsafe.
Twenty-six stories later, the food writer for Grist – an online environmental magazine based in Seattle, has a different view. "What's the fuss all about?" Johnson now says with conviction.
Johnson talked about his research and findings March 10 during "An Evening with Nathanael Johnson," hosted by the Iowa Food & Family Project. The event was held at the Iowa FFA Enrichment Center in Ankeny. About 150 people --- farmers, foodies, students, agribusiness officials, etc. --- attended the event, which featured Johnson talking about GMOs and his conclusions, a panel discussion with Iowa farmers and a question and answer period.
"In the end, I ended up figuring out that GMOs aren't necessarily going to save the world, but they aren't a problem," Johnson said. "It's a useful tool."
Grist editors tasked Johnson with thoroughly exploring all aspects of GMOs, which continue to be a polarizing topic worldwide and in Iowa. Most of the soybeans and corn raised in the state and fed to livestock are genetically altered to kill or resist pests, withstand herbicides, better tolerate drought and other reasons.
Johnson said at some point society has to move on and trust science. He explored health, environmental, social, scientific, agronomic and other aspects of GMOs. Exhaustive research, countless interviews with scientists and government officials and talking with people on both sides of the issue all led to the same conclusion.
"If I want to be on the side of science, I had to accept (GMOs) are as safe as science can suggest. I don't know if it's worth the passion that gets poured into it," Johnson said.
Ultimately, he said a lot of fact finding didn't matter because much of the skepticism and fear of GMOs comes from the great disconnect between "eaters," as Johnson likes to call consumers, and production agriculture. The vast majority of Americans, including people in the Heartland, are several generations removed from the farm.
"(People) are fundamentally alienated from their food supply. They want their food dollar to make the world a better place, and they are not convinced (GMOs) will," Johnson said.
Farmers and commodity organizations need to continue to tell the story of agriculture and relay how food is grown, said Cliff Mulder who farms near Pella and serves on the Iowa Soybean Association board of directors. He said it's a slow process, but a critical one.
"Nathanael had a negative perception of GMOs when he first approached this project, but he kept an open mind, followed the facts and reported the science that proves this technology's safety," Mulder said. "I would hope we, as a board and producers, will continue to work to inform others that the food we grow is safe." The soybean group is a founding member of the Iowa Food & Family Project (IFFP).
Amanda Rinehart with DuPont Pioneer said Johnson provided insight into "real" questions consumers have about their food, how it is grown and who produces it. DuPont Pioneer is one of more than 35 IFFP partners.
"It's refreshing to hear from a consumer who truly wants to better understand the food and ag system and take others along on his journey," Rinehart said. "I hope everyone in attendance walked away with motivation to tell their own food and ag story."
The Iowa Food & Family Project ( offers Iowans a variety of opportunities to become more familiar with farmers and confident in how they grow food through its presenting sponsorship of the Iowa Games and support of Live Healthy Iowa. It also sponsors farm tours and must-see exhibits at the Iowa State Fair and maintains an active presence on the web and social media. Most recently, it partnered with influential "Iowa Girl Eats" blogger Kristin Porter to visit farms and share her experiences and perspectives about farm life through "Join My Journey."

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