Originally published March 19, 2015 in the Manitoba Cooperator
The terminology used to describe modern plant breeding gives it a bad name
Google reveals a plethora of ideas for “How to choose a name.” It has suggestions for your baby, your dog, your business, your blog and more.
Have you ever wondered what the discussion would be around food and agriculture if plant scientists sought similar advice when naming genetically modified organisms (GMOs)? They’re immersed in science, their everyday field, and the terminology of their everyday language. “Transgenic plant breeding” and “biotech crops” are also used to describe the breeding methods, but the terminology has created fear, apprehension and misunderstanding for many consumers. Even when people do not know what a GMO is they believe they should be feared and avoided. For an example, see “What’s a GMO?” for Jimmy Kimmel’s take on the subject.
So instead of technology moving forward to provide solutions to drought, famine and disease it sits on a shelf while a heated public debate ensues.
But where would we be if a different name had been chosen? GMOs are a precise extension of conventional plant breeding, changing only one to three genes instead of 10,000 to 800,000. It takes less than five years to develop a new variety as opposed to five to 30 years. It is a straightforward, accurate, timely and effective process. Humans have been manipulating plant genetics for more than 10,000 years but only recently have breeding practices been called into question. Is it possible the name contributed to the skepticism?
Would have “precision plant breeding” better suited the process? Would have it instilled confidence instead of fear? Enthusiasm instead of activism? We will never know, but as the #farmtofood conversation continues to grow, perhaps we should re-examine the terminology we use and the names we choose.
If we are to bridge the gap between science, industry and consumer, care should be taken to ensure our language is building bridges of understanding not fences of fear. A name needs to be representative and descriptive but should also be clear and concise to all.