Lack of communication is to blame in biotech debate, according to House panel

By Sarah Gonzalez

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WASHINGTON, July 10, 2014- The heated public debate over genetically modified foods shows the agricultural industry is not doing enough to communicate biotechnology's benefits to society, according to a group of witnesses hosted by the House Agriculture Subcommittee Horticulture, Research, Biotechnology, and Foreign Agriculture on Wednesday.

“Today's hearing made it very clear that we still have a lot of work to do to communicate with the public about the benefits of biotech," said Ranking Member Kurt Schrader, D-Oregon.

David Just of Cornell University said there is a tide of “irrational consumer fears” regarding biotechnology. The science of biotechnology is vast and includes hybrid genetic engineering as well as trangenics, or GMOs.

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“In general, we find a large and growing number of consumers who stigmatize GMOs,” he said. “This stigma has long been a factor in Europe, and we see the same pattern emerging in the US.”

He said firms that produce GMOs should focus on branding individual modifications rather than the entire technology.

 “It is easy to stigmatize genetic modification as a benefit only to large agribusinesses, but it is difficult to stigmatize corn that is reducing the incidence of blindness in sub-Saharan Africa,” Just said.

Schrader, a former organic farmer, said “it's important that we don't pit different agriculture production systems against one another.”

He said he is worried about the biotechnology debate divides the agricultural community, and he expressed his concerns about state efforts to mandate labeling for foods made with GMOs.

“My biggest worry is that under the guise of trying to inform the consumer we actually misinform the consumer,” Schrader said. “We run the risk of making labeling an almost irrelevant and moot point. And that would be a shame.”

Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill., who sat in for Chairman Austin Scott, R-Ga., to lead the hearing, asked the panelists to weigh in on the consequences of efforts to enact state labeling mandates.

Just said it creates uncertainty for companies creating the products and would result in “a dampening of innovation.”

Food and agriculture companies spent millions of dollars to fight labeling ballot initiatives that ultimately failed in California and Washington. So far, only Vermont has passed a GMO labeling law without any “trigger” clauses requiring neighboring states to do the same.

In a statement this month, The Center for Food Safety noted that the labeling campaign in Oregon recently filed 150,000 supportive signatures, which is above the amount required to make it on the ballot in the November election.

Rep. Ted Yoho, R- Flor., lamented the lengthened average timeline for government approval of biotechnology products, noting as of 2013, it took an average of 30 months.

Just said he believes growing concern about biotechnology is leading to additional scrutiny, but “it's activists outside of academic community” leading the charge.

Additionally, Calestous Juma of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, said political leadership is hesitant to make changes in support of biotechnology, which is “something they think their voters might not support.”

He said, “Biotechnology product pipelines are being choked by discriminatory regulations, labeling threats, and a rising tide of product disparagement and misinformation.” 

Industry members have acknowledged a lack of initiative to communicate with the public over the past couple of decades. The Council for Biotechnology Information, which includes BASF, Bayer CropScience, Dow AgroSciences, DuPont, Monsanto Company and Syngenta, recently formed the GMO Answers campaign and website in an attempt to conduct a forum that could address the public's concerns about biotechnology.

The hearing also included a Vermont dairy farmer representing the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives (NCFC), Joanna Lidback, who said, “We in agriculture have failed to connect with the public and this has allowed misinformation to spread.”

None of the witnesses or members in the hearing raised concerns typically heard in the biotechnology debate about the use and consumption of genetically modified crops, which include nutritional quality and glysophate use.

“Hopefully just by having this hearing we can demonstrate that we do have the political courage to stand up and ensure we're putting the facts of science over hysteria,” Davis said.  

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