By Juan Pablo Casadiego Guevara, undergraduate student of Management, Los Andes University
This is one of the most common questions I get since becoming passionate about agribusiness issues. The answer is quite straightforward: if you stop to think about where our food comes from, you realize that the value chain runs from the farmer, through processors, factories and distributors, before ending up in supermarkets and eventually on our tables. In one way or another, decisions made by farmers, scientists, administrators and lawyers respond to a market that is both demanding and growing; one with some serious challenges ahead.
Take genetically modified organisms (GMOs). In recent years, GMOs have become a hot-button issue. With information coming from different sources, many believe they are linked to medical issues or environmental pollution. In the past, I’ve also found these terms creeping into my own position. However, a few months ago, I had the opportunity to learn more about the scientific debates behind GMOs – not via the Internet or Facebook, but from the director of Agrobio Colombia, scientist María Andrea Uscátegui. From an invitation to meet with María Andrea to “demystify" GMOs and, later, in publications by Spanish scientist Jose Miguel Mulet, I learned that much of what we hear about these advances causes a great deal of misinformation.
For most of us, it is unlikely that we will ever work in any part of the food value chain. It’s even less likely that we’ll work directly in the fields. But we all eat, and it will become increasingly difficult to feed a growing population in the years to come. To respond to these challenges, we need to all be engaged and informed about the challenges ahead, regardless of our own background. We should all be thinking about how GMOs affect us, since they are already part of our diet.
That is how I started thinking about how we can increase knowledge about modern food technology, bridging the gap of understanding through open dialogue. There is no better space to start these kinds of dialogues than in an everyday environment; one like my own university, Los Andes University. In speaking with María Andrea about the university’s sustainability research and the great progress made in management education initiatives targeted at the Sustainable Development Goals, we hit on the idea of organizing an event showcasing the efforts of Agrobio, the college, and the students. Our goal? For participants to come away with a more informed opinion on GMOs, while still having their personal positions respected. Coming away from our meeting, I threw myself into planning the event with the invaluable support of Francisca Rico, a second-year student and volunteer from Los Andes Environmental Roundtable.
Called Transgenics: Science and Society, the event took place on April 25. In the first half, we screened Food Evolution, the award-winning documentary on transgenic foods. Produced by scientists and supported by the United States Institute of Food Technology, it presents a science-based perspective on food innovation. It was then over to the experts for a panel discussion. Representing different strands of the GMO debate, we were joined by María Andrea Uscátegui; Arnulfo Cuprita, farmer of genetically modified cotton; Professor Jinneth Lorena Castro, a biotechnology research professor; and Professor Bart Van Hoof, professor in sustainable agribusiness. We discussed food technology innovations from all angles, covering the challenges of GMOs while highlighting how they contribute to our food system. We all came away with two major findings: firstly, we should look past what the media says about GMOs and always seek out the scientific basis for our arguments. Secondly, we all need to rethink how we can contribute individually to addressing food insecurity with small daily actions.
We would like to thank each of our panelists for joining us to share their valuable knowledge and experiences with the audience, as well as everyone who trusted us and helped us to turn this event into a reality: from the entire marketing team of the management college, to the administrative staff who helped out with logistics and advertising, to Joaquín Caraballo (Director of the Sustainable Development Masters), who, in addition to being an excellent panel moderator, supported us and was always attentive to the event up the last moment. My special thanks to everyone for filling us with joy and hope, because they showed us that great things can be achieved together and with passion. A discussion panel in a college auditorium might not change the world but I am sure that the people who were there that day can play their own part in alleviating the confusion of a changing society.