WASHINGTON, Sept. 16, 2015 - One of the leaders of a foundation-supported effort to reconcile conflicting views about food and agricultural policy sees an “increasingly powerful kind of anti-GMO fervor arising” in the United States.

“I think the head-bashing is really getting going and there is more business impact than I had expected,” Emmy Simmons, co-chair of AGree, said after a lecture in Washington sponsored by Diplomats and Consular Officers Retired (DACOR) and the USAID Alumni Association.

Asked whether agricultural biotechnology offers “great potential for Africa” but would be held back by the way that “GMOs are demonized in Europe and to a lesser extent in North America,” Simmons replied, “I would say to an increasing extent in North America. It’s having an impact on markets. Even farmers are beginning to hedge their bets.”

Simmons, a retired USAID assistant administrator and now an independent consultant with extensive experience in Africa, added, “I kind of agree these (GMOs) are going to be the future for Africa.” She noted that the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA) has modified plantain with a gene from green peppers to resist a “very devastating” disease.

“Being able to control that disease will be amazing,” adding that the modified plantain is being tested in Uganda. She said biotech cotton, which requires less pesticide, had reduced health risks to producers and resulted in “unmitigated benefits” for farmers.

She held out optimism that new methods of genetic modification that “do not involve the transfer of ‘alien species’” would be more acceptable in the future. She described how moving genes from one variety of apple to another variety could ward off scab disease but noted the technology faces regulatory uncertainty. “The question is whether that will be approved.” Simmons added, “It’s less clear how these new GMO technologies will fare. So far the [Aqua Bounty] salmon has become a real flash point; neither FDA nor USDA has approved those yet.”

New technologies may introduce a different dimension to the debate, she suggested. “I think there was too much emphasis in U.S. trade policy in kind of pushing the view that GMOs were the answer to the world food crisis and that everybody who didn’t agree with that view were stupid,” she said. “So I think we now have to re-nuance and reframe that discussion.”

But biotechnology is only one of a number of challenges to agricultural policymakers, she said. One derives from changes in U.S. consumer food preferences as made evident by the so-called “healthy eating” movement to choose only foods that are produced in an environmentally sustainable manner. “On the other hand,” she said, there is a realization in the scientific community that “we are on the edge with climate change” and its effects on food production.

“There has been a radical change in the food environment,” Simmons said, and a need to “better align policies with realities.” The United States has “not paid attention” to agricultural research in recent years, she said, with public funding not keeping pace with the need, and private sector investment focused narrowly on specific products rather than improvement in productivity.


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