WASHINGTON, May 31, 2017 - The Food and Drug Administration has a tough job ahead of it, a job that the food and agriculture sectors have struggled to accomplish: Convince the public that biotech crops are safe to eat and can offer a variety of benefits to the public and the environment.
The fiscal 2017 spending bill enacted at the end of April includes $3 million earmarked for FDA to coordinate with the Agriculture Department on a consumer outreach and education effort. The stated goal under the legislation is to educate consumers “on the environmental, nutritional, food safety, economic, and humanitarian impacts of such biotechnology, food products, and feed.”
The provision first surfaced in 2016 as Congress was debating legislation to block state GMO labeling laws. “There was an obvious need for more consumer-facing information and science facts to be available. You can’t get everything you need on a food label,” said Karen Batra, a spokeswoman for the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, or BIO.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association said in a statement that the FDA program would be an “invaluable tool” in countering misinformation about GMOs. BIO and GMA were among nearly 70 food and agriculture groups, universities and professional societies that sent a letter to lawmakers last year in support of the FDA program.
The GMO law enacted in July 2016 will require companies to disclose the presence of biotech ingredients through a digital code that can be read by smartphones. But consumers still won’t have enough knowledge about biotechnology itself, and that is where the FDA program will come in, said Brian Rell, a spokesman for House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Robert Aderholt, an Alabama Republican who originally put the provision in the House version of the FY17 bill.
“Up until now, consumer activists, biotech seed companies, and organic companies have tried to fill the void in trying to educate the public. However, each of these segments has an ulterior motive. FDA is a neutral source and the public generally accepts FDA’s word on most scientific issues,” Rell said.
Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, who got the GMO bill through the Senate over intense opposition from most Democrats, is skeptical that the government can have much impact on public attitudes toward biotechnology. “Anybody within the food industry knows that right now the rage is all about organic. All we were trying to say (with the labeling preemption law) is don’t put a label on other products that we produce and that people use in the grocery store and say that’s bad.”
But some experts believe the right kind of messages from federal regulators could have an impact on public attitudes toward biotechnology. It’s not clear that past communications by federal agencies have had much effect on the public, said Jayson Lusk, an economist at Oklahoma State University who studies what foods people eat and why. But most consumers are uninformed or misinformed about genetic engineered crops, so “subtle changes in working, descriptions of benefits of the technology etc. can be persuasive,” he said. He notes that voter support for state ballot initiatives on GMO labeling dropped considerably after the industry began campaigning against them.
Lusk said it will be important for the FDA to maintain its credibility by being honest about possible downsides of the technology, acknowledging the tradeoffs involved in using it, and not overselling its benefits. The agency also needs to ensure that the information is scientifically accurate and addresses the perspectives of consumers and farmers.
Charlie Arnot, who is founder of Look East, a public relations consulting firm that specializes in food and agriculture, also believes an FDA education effort could be effective, based on digital ethnography research that allows the communicator to reach the targeted groups with information that they need.
The $3 million budgeted for the program could pay for the research and provide a roadmap for engaging the targeted audience, he said. “That should be enough funding to achieve a measurable improvement in the attitudes, beliefs and feelings of your targeted audience, but only if you can concentrate the $3 million in a well-orchestrated effort (not allowing it to be diluted) and your goal is opinion evolution, not opinion transformation,” he said.
An FDA spokesperson told Agri-Pulse that "the FDA is currently working to get the funds obligated, so it would be premature to speculate how and when the agency will allocate these funds."