By Sarah Brown
Laura Rutherford personifies wholesome American agriculture: the mother of three young boys, a marathoner, and a ninth generation farmer, she and her husband, Roy, farm sugarbeets near Grafton in North Dakota’s Red River Valley.
She’s also an Internet savvy blogger bent on boosting the public’s perception of biotechnology.
“I’m really concerned about the amount of misinformation about biotechnology and farming and agriculture in general,” Rutherford said. “Less than 2 percent of the American population is involved in farming and agriculture, so the average person is so far removed from the farm that when they read stuff on social media and on the Internet they really can’t tell what’s true.”
Rutherford is one of more than a dozen farm women nationwide who comprise The Biotech Spokeswomen, an informal information campaign to promote biotechnology in the sugarbeet industry. Under fire from activists who decry the ethical, environmental and consumer health aspects of the new technology, the industry has long fought back, battling state and federal labeling laws and bolstering public education.
Now the fight’s wired.
On blogs, in Twitter links, and in Facebook posts, likes and shares, farm women are defending the reputation of their livelihood: the Roundup Ready genetically modified sugarbeets that make up 99 percent of the U.S. crop and over half the sugar produced in this country.
The Biotech Spokeswomen use viral social marketing, much the same way anti-GMO advocates have for years. Using pre-existing social networks and other technologies to promote the virtues of biotechnology, the process is analogous to the spread of viruses, hence the name.
In addition to using the Internet and mobile networks, the spokeswomen give presentations, interviews and converse knowledgeably with friends and associates.
The point is it’s personal.
The 18 spokeswomen are volunteers. Their expenses are reimbursed by local growers’ associations and cooperatives, and, last September, they toured Monsanto’s breeding facility in St. Louis, Mo., where they also received social media training.
“We went to Monsanto to see the technology for ourselves,” Rutherford said. “If we are going to talk to women about it, we wanted to see it firsthand, understand it and ask questions about it.”
Monsanto licenses the Roundup Ready trait to sugarbeet seed companies and manufactures the Roundup brand agricultural herbicides farmers use to control weeds. Deregulated in 2005, Roundup Ready sugarbeets were able to capture 95 percent of the domestic market by 2009, making it the fastest-adopted genetically modified crop in history.
Rutherford’s interest in publicly endorsing biotechnology grew out of a Rural Leadership North Dakota (RLND) project. Together with Luther Markwart, executive vice president of the American Sugarbeet Growers Association, she came up with the idea: “To get women growers involved in trying to tell the story about sugarbeets and the farm and biotechnology and what it is and what it’s not.”
Rutherford, 35, launched her pro-biotech blog “The Sweet Truth” last year and has seen her traffic increase from farmers she knows, to farmers nationwide and now to the general public. There, she seeks to address what she calls the “misinformation” disseminated by “activists.”
“People don’t understand that sugar is the same no matter how it’s grown,” Rutherford said. “White refined sugar has been tested down to the molecular level and there’s no protein or DNA presence in the final product people consume. There is no difference between beet sugar and cane sugar.”
Sugar derived from sugar crops grown using conventional, biotech or organic methods has identical nutritional value and composition, according to industry information.
But that’s only part of the picture.
GMOs are living organisms whose genetic material has been manipulated in a laboratory. This science creates combinations of plant, animal, bacteria and viral genes that do not occur in nature or through traditional crossbreeding methods. Virtually all commercial GMOs are engineered to withstand direct application of herbicide or to produce a protein fatal to insects.
The genetically modified sugarbeet includes a gene from a soil bacterium that allows it to tolerate Roundup whose active ingredient is glyphosate. One year ago, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer announced findings that glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic to humans.” The Environmental Protection Agency is currently conducting a registration review of glyphosate.
While detractors link GMOs with health problems, environmental damage and violation of farmers’ and consumers’ rights, the spokeswomen say it’s all good: GMO traits boost sugarbeet yields, reduce tillage, and enhance farmer and environmental safety.
Rutherford, who grows dry beans, potatoes and wheat in addition to GM sugarbeets, says it’s true: genetically engineered sugarbeets have increased yields by about 20 percent across the industry, eliminated hand labor to hoe weeds and lessened the number and quantity of chemicals used and handled by growers.
“We use far fewer chemicals and apply them far less often than we would have to if we were doing conventional sugarbeets,” Rutherford said. “To me biotech is win-win for farmers and consumers. We’re able to produce a bigger crop and greatly reduce our exposure to chemicals.”
Spokeswoman Rhonda Steiger, 35, farms GM sugarbeets near Belfry, Mont. with her husband, Cliff, and father, Randy Hergenrider.
“Glyphosate is the most mild, safe and effective product we’ve ever had and that greatly benefits growers and consumers,” Steiger said.
In the past, as now, farmers completed pesticide training courses and were licensed before they handled and applied federally-approved chemicals, but they used more of them and that meant more risk of chemical exposure, Steiger said.
“I remember Dad doing a tank mix of five different chemicals, which required a lot of mixing,” she said.
Steiger said the general public simply isn’t informed on the issue. If they were, they, too, would embrace GM crops like sugarbeets and corn, which she also grows to feed her pigs and cattle.
“As farmers we have always taken pride in being good stewards of the land,” she said. “GM technology simply allows us to do this even better.”
Steiger, whose two children are 7 and 4, said as a wife and mother she has credibility, especially with other women.
“Women respect the opinions and knowledge of other women,” Steiger said.
Also, in many households, women make most of the food purchasing decisions.
“This is a food product,” Markwart said. “As women and wives and mothers, they’re saying ‘Hey, this product is absolutely fine, and, if you really understood it, you’d understand why it’s fine.’”