WASHINGTON, March 5, 2014 - The campaigns to label foods that contain genetically modified ingredients are driven by a movement that relies on emotional sentiments, said Julie Borlaug, the assistant director of partnerships at the Norman Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture, during the 2014 Bayer Ag Issues Forum in San Antonio last week.

“Advocates of biotechnology desperately need to do a better job of explaining to the public why biotech is vital to our future,” she said. “Our opponents have gained the offensive with arguments that are emotional and anti-corporate.”

Appealing to an agricultural audience supportive of biotechnology, Borlaug, the granddaughter of Norman Borlaug, who is widely regarded as the father of the Green Revolution, asked that the agriculture community adopt a similar tactic and convey its message about modern productive agriculture without relying solely on scientific information. 

“I’m asking you to give an emotional message,” she said. “Take our message about the farmer to the public so we can finally end this debate.”

She gave the example of resistance to Golden Rice, which is produced through biotechnology to be rich in beta-carotene, and has potential benefit for malnourished children. She also said small-holder farmers in Africa would greatly benefit from biotech crops.

“I’ve seen women in fields spending hour after hour pulling weeds or losing crops to insects and viruses,” she said. “Once you’ve seen this you want to ensure they all have whatever innovation they could possibly need.”

However, she said the debate in the United States focuses on anti-biotech food with consumer groups pushing for GMO food labeling laws in several states. Although high-profile state ballot initiatives in California and Washington failed, Maine and Connecticut passed labeling laws that can be enforced if more states in the region adopt similar rules. 

In an attempt to prevent a patchwork of state GMO food labeling rules, a coalition of agricultural, food manufacturer and consumer groups announced in February it will advocate for a national labeling law. The Coalition for Safe Affordable Foods is promoting a federal law that would require a label on foods containing GMO ingredients only if (FDA) determines there is a health or safety risk. This way, food companies would be able to place voluntary labels on their products, but could avoid mandatory state labeling laws.

Perhaps an indication of consumers’ growing aversion to biotechnology, the Center for Food Safety announced Monday that the two largest grocery store chains in the U.S., Kroger and Safeway, said they would not sell GMO salmon developed by AquaBounty and currently under review by the FDA. The agency has made a preliminary finding that approving AquAdvantage salmon for human consumption would not have a significant impact on the environment. 

However, there are now more than 60 food retailers nationwide, including Whole Foods, Target, Trader Joe’s, Marsh and Giant Eagle, representing more than 9,000 grocery stores, that have already said they will not sell the salmon, according to a coalition including Center for Food Safety, Food and Water Watch and Consumers Union.

Although animals genetically engineered through biotechnology may be a tough sell to the average consumer, Borlaug said the “citrus greening” disease devastating Florida’s citrus industry could generate increased support for GE food products.

“We can use it to bring to a more simple conversation: ‘Do you know you’re not going to have orange juice to feed your kids if citrus greening continues to be as rampant as it is? With GMOs, you can continue to have orange juice every day,’” she said, indicating she believes a genetically-engineered antidote may be found to greening.

In memory of the 100th anniversary of her grandfather’s birth, on March 25, Borlaug asked the biotech agricultural community to begin a movement that is “inclusive, makes real solutions and motivates the next generation to not fear GMOs and biotechnology.”

David Hollinrake, the vice president of Agriculture Commercial Operations (ACO) marketing at Bayer CropScience, said a growing global population will produce a larger middle class and a greater demand for agricultural products developed through biotechnology.

“We have to help better tell the story of modern production agriculture, because it’s got a massive role to play for all of us to be successful in the future,” he said. “We’ve done a good job telling the intellectual story, but haven’t connected well with the heart.”


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