Wanted: More strategic communications on biotech benefits

By Sarah Gonzalez

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



Brian Scott, who raises corn, soybeans, popcorn and wheat in Indiana, started a blog to document the daily life of a farmer about three years ago, simply to “talk about what we do every day” to people who are not living on farms.

Now he says he is contacted about biotechnology issues several times a week, and he feels a sense of responsibility to explain why and how he uses genetically modified (GM) seeds.

“I'm one of those people that stepped into that role whether I intended to or not,” he said. His most popular post, which he wrote over two years ago, is one that links to his Monsanto Technology/Stewardship Agreement.

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But Scott's efforts may be the exception, rather than the rule, according to a group of witnesses recently hosted by the House Agriculture Subcommittee Horticulture, Research, Biotechnology, and Foreign Agriculture. They said the heated public debate over genetically modified foods shows the agricultural industry is not doing enough to communicate biotechnology's benefits.

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

Although each witness insisted there is a scientific consensus on the safety of GMO foods and transgenic crops, several members noted that state GMO labeling initiatives are fueled by “Right to Know” campaigns generating from public mistrust of genetically engineered crops.

The 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 Kurt Schrader, D-Oregon, the panel's ranking member.

Industry representatives have acknowledged the need to do better. The Council for Biotechnology Information, which includes BASF, Bayer CropScience, Dow AgroSciences, DuPont, Monsanto Co. and Syngenta, recently initiated the GMO Answers campaign and website in an attempt to conduct a forum that could address the public's concerns about biotechnology.

Joe Ballenger, who writes for Biofortified, said in addition to formal online forums, he now sees plenty of outreach from graduate students, university professors, farmers and journalists over social media.

“It's kind of disheartening that the people who are involved in policy writing believe there is no outreach being done,” he told Agri-Pulse in an email. “Many believe the outreach is only coming from biotech companies, but this isn't true.”

Mischa Popoff, public speaker, political columnist and former organic farm inspector, said in an interview with Agri-Pulse that the biotech industry pointing to itself as the source of its public image problem is “a great example of how successful the organic campaign is.”

Even though “2.2 million American farmers freely choose to grow GMOs,” industry and policymakers are “reacting to a constant barrage of state and county labeling campaigns,” he said. Regarding pro-biotech campaigns, he said, “They have no idea what their strategy is. It's all reactionary.”

Popoff said focusing on biotech public relations results in “spending money that would go to Research and Development.” New crop innovations, including genetically modified wheat, are being stalled “on the backburner.”

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. However, a labeling initiative in Oregon appears to be headed to the Nov. ballot.

Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill., concluded the subcommittee hearing by saying he hoped it demonstrated that some policymakers “do have the political courage to stand up and ensure we're putting the facts of science over hysteria.”

A few days after that meeting, Kerri Burson, a research scientist based in Maryland, wrote to the House Agriculture panel on behalf of the GMO Skepti-Forum blog to alert the committee members to yet another project.

"There isn't a lack of pro-GMO/biotechnology communication, but it is harder for the layperson to find. That is what we are trying to change."

“I think it is important to point out that there are many projects on the internet that are working to rectify this issue,” Burson wrote. She said the Skepti-Forum project, started by Knigel Holmes, a self-described layperson with a goal to “advocate scientific skepticism,” has grown into “a rather large and complex undertaking” since it began almost a year ago.

Within the Skepti-Forum, which has about 2,700 members, “We challenge people -- if they're a GMO critic or pro-GMO-- to be able to explain why they believe their claims.”

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