Addressing GMOs misinformation

Hands of bananas
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Ella Nyakunu, a South Africa-based manager of a project helping to articulate biosafety and biotechnology issues around agriculture in Southern Africa recalls how people in her home country, Zimbabwe, tease her each time she goes there.
“You are so fat. It’s because of the GMOs (genetically modified organisms) that you eat in South Africa,” Nyakunu narrated one of such negative experiences to delegates at the GMASSURE (assuring agricultural and food safety of genetically modified organisms in Southern Africa) course in science communication, held in South Africa early this month (2-3 September).

It’s a chance for scientists who deal with GM technology to explain to the public the controversies about the risks and benefits.

Ella Nyakunu, University of Pretoria

Nyakunu, an agriculture scientist and a project manager at the University of Pretoria, South Africa, rues the missed opportunity to shed light on the raging debate regarding GMOs.

“It’s a chance for scientists who deal with GM technology to explain to the public the controversies about the risks and benefits, but it does not always happen,”she told the delegates.
I concur with Nyakunu’s observation. Practical skills to deal with the media on topics relating to GMOs are scarce for researchers and regulators from Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe.
I wish to see how far GMASSURE, the three-year programme funded by the European Union that was started in 2014, will succeed in countering misinformation in the public domain to consumers about the safety of GMOs.
My curiosity is aroused by a statement from John Becker, head of GMASSURE, that farmers, decision-makers and the public lack accurate knowledge generally on agricultural biotechnology and GMOs specifically.
Becker’s assertion that “a groundswell of negative, inaccurate information is influencing those involved in the adoption of the technology” confirms my belief that even though biotechnological solutions can address agricultural sustainability issues in southern Africa, the debate seems to be uninformed or misinformed.
Are we not considering GMOs as a viable technological solution because of suspicions of poor safety and ill-health effects?
I share the view of Lesley Cowling, an associate professor in the Department of Journalism at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa that scientists must learn to write for the public and media if they are to communicate effectively.
Journalists must explain the basics of the science because the average citizen does not really understand what GMOs are. The media need to provide space and resources for coverage to “orchestrate” the debate more explicitly, balancing the arguments raised by the different protagonists.

It, however, seems that GMASSURE is still unsure of how to confront the bigger beast in the mix–GMO politics. Partner countries such as Zimbabwe are held hostage by politics, unwilling to examine the science.
In hushed tones, delegates talked about how they deliberately made sure letters seeking permission from their superiors to attend the meeting were carefully worded to avoid mentioning the word GMOs.
The opportunity to attend the training could have ended even before it started.

This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's Sub-Saharan Africa desk.