Lack of consumer acceptance plagues biotech science

World Food Prize laureates say better methods are needed for communicating science to the general public

World FoodPrize2013__0_opt.jpegThe greatest challenge feeding the world’s growing population is not about the science needed to boost production, it is convincing the public to accept it, scientists receiving the 2013 World Food Prize said here last week.

The three scientists honoured as pioneers of genetically modified crops spent much of their time defending the two-decades-old technology against concerns they say should have been laid to rest long ago.

“Looking back at the beginning of this science, I don’t think I could ever imagine it would have had the impact and adaptation that it has had today,” said Robb Fraley, Monsanto’s executive vice-president and chief biotechnology officer. “And I never thought in the early stages that we would still be talking about acceptance and the consumer challenges we are talking about today.”

He noted genetically modified crops developed by his company and others have an “impeccable” safety track record and been embraced by farmers in more than 30 countries all over the world.

“The beauty of the science is taking all of this advancement in biology and genetic engineering and putting it in a seed. Every farmer in the world knows what to do with a seed. The barriers to adoption are very, very low and the ability to reap benefit is high,” he said.

However, it continues to face opposition from consumers, activist groups and politicians. “We need to make people understand the technology has been tested and the safety has never been compromised.”

What’s more, the technology has transformed plant breeding, taking it to the molecular level, as gene mapping makes it possible for scientists to select for specific traits, he said.

“I am optimistic that the tools that we have in biotechnology are incredible. From the science perspective we’re seeing just the tip of the iceberg by way of new opportunities,” he said.

But at the same time as the world is called upon to double its food supply, producing more in the next few decades than it has in its entire history to feed an estimated 9.6 billion people by 2050, the backlash continues against one of the technologies that can help make that happen.

Three receive award

Fraley joined Marc Van Montagu, the founder of the Institute for Plant Biotechnology Outreach in Belgium, and Mary-Dell Chilton, founder of Syngenta Biotechnology Inc. in accepting the annual award recognizing individuals who have contributed to global food security.

Biotech proponents celebrated the World Food Prize Foundation’s decision to honour three of its own as a much-needed boost to the industry’s credibility. But the decision was condemned by organizations that continue to challenge the safety of genetically modified crops and worry about corporate control of the food chain. The Occupy the World Food Prize movement, which is critical of biotechnology, was among the 30 or so organizations holding side events concurrent with the three-day-long Borlaug Dialogues.

Van Montagu said he accepts that there is a segment of the population that based on personal beliefs, will never accept the technology. “There are people who believe in horoscopes; there are people who believe that spaceships come here; that is not problematic,” he said.

“But it becomes problematic if it becomes a power structure that really destroys our society — because that is what is really going on,” Van Montagu said. “If you cannot use science in society anymore because of these crazy beliefs, then there is a problem; I would even say there is a war going on that is much more serious than we were thinking before.”

He said the anti-GM campaign in Europe has effectively made it impossible for researchers to even study GM crops. “It is a very clever way that everything has been paralyzed.”

Yet the sector has not found an effective way to communicate the science to the general public in a manner it accepts. “If we cannot solve the communication problem, it will all be lost,” he said.

The backlash against science is not limited to biotechnology. John Ruff, former president of the Institute of Food Technologists, said despite all the progress made in safely preserving food, there is a growing movement in society against science altering food, even if it is making it safer.

“There is a growing cry that anything that is processed is bad for you,” he told a seminar on post-harvest losses. “We don’t want science in our food, we want something freshly grown.

“I would argue that that is the biggest single threat to the survival of mankind.”

Labelling counterproductive

Chilton said while voluntary labelling of non-GM crops is an option that already exists for organic and non-GM growers, the push to require labelling of foods containing GMOs would be counterproductive. Like calories and nutritional content, labelling implies there is something different about the product that pertains to people’s health or nutrition.

“I think it would be the death of the technology in a real sense if we have obligatory labelling,” Chilton said.

Fraley said that as scientists, they failed to realize how emotional the debate would become.

“Looking back, I would say that as a company and as an industry we are science based and I think we believed that the science would be adequate to address the safety and some of the public concerns that we see today,” he said. “It hasn’t been.

“We have always viewed ourselves as a company that produces and improves seeds that help farmers. Farmers have been our complete focus as a company as our key customers,” he said, noting it is working now to better understand the roots of consumer concerns.

“Over the last year we’ve spent a lot of time engaging in conversations and really listening sessions with hundreds of groups, NGOs (non-government organizations), people in the food industry, housewives and moms to talk about how to do differently,” he said. “The key thing that struck me is that while we considered ourselves to be a seed provider, the rest of the world views us as the first step in the food chain,” Fraley said.

He said the key will be reaching out to consumers in ways that haven’t been tried before.

“We are going to have to engage and act differently,” Fraley said. “We don’t have the conversation through press releases, it’s going to have to be more personal and we’re going to have to be much more effective in how we outreach using social media and really where we put our energy. And that’s going to be a really big part of the change that we need to make as a company and as an industry.”

Bigger picture

Several of the conference’s main speakers emphasized that while production-enhancing technologies, including biotechnology, are important, part of the backlash is related to the focus on them as the sole solution to world hunger.

“It is important to emphasize that there is enough food to feed everybody, but availability does not ensure access,” said Jomo Kwame Sundaram, a senior official with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Yemi AkinBamijo, the executive director for the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa, said up to 60 per cent of what is already produced in Africa doesn’t reach the marketplace. Dealing with post-harvest losses alone would dramatically boost food availability, he said.

About the author

Vice-President of Content

Laura Rance

Laura Rance is vice-president of content for Glacier FarmMedia. She can be reached at [email protected]

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