Monsanto's Fraley says consumers need more info on GMOs

By Whitney Forman-Cook

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WASHINGTON, Jan. 20, 2015 - Robert Fraley, Monsanto's chief technology officer, admitted that his company has “done a lousy job” of selling the public on genetically modified (GM) seeds and other agricultural products.

“We've done a lousy job communicating about science and what these (GM) technologies can do,” Fraley said at a talk hosted by the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C. “As important as science is, it's not enough. We have to be able to communicate science to the public better than we are today.”

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Monsanto made a big mistake in 1996 when it released the world's first agriculture-specific product made with a genetically modified organism (GMO) - Roundup Ready soybeans - and marketed them solely to the farmers that would use them instead of the public that would consume them, he said.

Now Monsanto is “engaging” consumers around GM technology and products and is “being transparent” about its business operations via social media, said Fraley, the World Food Prize laureate from 2013. This shift is important, he argued, because consumers need to know how GM technology improves crop yields and decreases farmers' inputs. They also need to know that the “technology has had a stellar safety record” - not one safety issue in the 20 years it's been commercially available, he added.

Consumers and policy makers “can become so elitist” when it comes to regulating GMOs, Fraley said. The European Union's strict rules on GM products, for instance, represent “an extreme position” that has “stifled first generation GMOs” and will likely do the same with gene editing and other emerging biotechnology, he said.

Allowing individual states to require labeling of foods containing GMOs would create a “patchwork of regulations” that “would be very hard on the food industry… devastating for farmers… and very confusing for consumers,” he said.

Monsanto supports voluntary labeling of GMOs, he said. If mandatory labeling regulation are unavoidable, he said, the company would prefer a uniform national law, as opposed to ones enacted by individual states.

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Fraley said he is a proponent of SmartLabel, an application that shoppers can use to scan the QR codes on food packages to find out more about the ingredients. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack proposed the idea for the barcode-scanning app last year as an alternative to mandatory labeling.

Jennifer Kuzma, a public affairs professor for North Carolina State University, served as Fraley's counterpoint during Wednesday's discussion. While she agreed that GMOs hold a great deal of promise, she questioned whether GM crops actually had higher yields, and whether they would be critical to feeding a world population that Fraley predicted would grow to 10 billion people by 2050.

Kuzma said reducing food waste and the number of calories consumed per day sourced from animals, like meat, eggs and dairy, were likely better ways to secure enough food to feed the world in 2050. For instance, a study by the World Resources Institute found that if the world cut its current rate of food loss and waste from 24 percent to 12 percent, the savings would cover about a quarter of the additional food needed to feed the world in 2050.

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