of biotechnology in agriculture
“We have to overcome the perception that there’s something wrong with a plant made better in the lab.”
With that statement, U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge of Lillington drew an emphatic bottom line at “Feeding the World: The Future of Biotechnology in Agriculture,” a round table discussion he hosted at N.C. State University August 16.
The forum included government officials, university research faculty and representatives of the biotechnology industry, as well as agribusiness leaders and crop producers. And they all seemed to agree that, when it comes to making a case for the benefits of biotechnology to the world, it’s ultimately a matter of show, tell and listen — and let the facts speak for themselves.
“Today we have brought together farmers, scientists and businesses to examine the importance of bioengineering to the future of food production and how we can better educate the public and increase people’s confidence and acceptance of this important technology,” Etheridge said.
The benefits of biotechnology are numerous, he explained. “For consumers, the nutritional value of grains, fruits and vegetables can be enhanced; allergen-free food can be developed; and foods can be made to taste better. For farmers, plants can be altered to resist pests, insects, virus and disease. In addition, bioenhanced products help the environment by reducing the need for pesticides, fertilizers and the amount of land necessary for cultivation.”
However, even with all these benefits, he said, “the continued research and development of these plants will mean little if we can’t sell their safety and benefits around the world. The best answer is not just argument, but sound science. We have to reassure people of the safety.”
Etheridge emphasized that biotechnology is really nothing to fear, that it’s not so much a new technology, but “something humanity has been practicing for hundreds of years — just improved. Through the crossbreeding and hybridization of plants, farmers for centuries have been aiming for the same goals as bioengineers. All we’re doing is speeding up the process.”
Picking up on that point, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Dean Jim Oblinger said, “We have made tremendous advances in biotechnology, but we continually face challenges when it comes to public perceptions of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). A comprehensive approach to educate the public is necessary — a strategy of partnership among government, commodity and agribusiness leaders and researchers. We need to proactively seize this moment.”
N.C. Agriculture Commissioner Jim Graham agreed. “I have always trusted the merits of scientific research,” he said. “But many of the world’s governments and consumers are wary of biotechnology. We need to put the proper amount of effort into consumer education, as well as address public complacency about where food comes from. People need to know that this technology will be needed to put food on the table.”
Panel member Dr. Thomas J. Hoban, professor of sociology at N.C. State, offered the consumer perspective on the issue, citing findings revealed in studies of worldwide responses to biotechnology.
Among the challenges to educating the public about biotechnology are that most people have limited knowledge of science and agriculture; sensationalized media coverage raises fears; and biotechnology raises a complex range of ethical issues. Acceptance of biotechnology will depend on public awareness and understanding, a recognition of benefits and a view of biotechnology as ethically acceptable, along with confidence in government and trust in information sources, Hoban noted.
The main need, he explained, is to demonstrate the benefits — that it’s environmentally friendly, can reduce world hunger, enhances nutrition and food safety and is good for the economy — and clarify its links to breakthroughs in human health and the genome project.
“We’ve got a bit of education to do,” he said.
Panelist Jim Wilder, executive vice president, N.C. Soybean Producers Asscociation, offered yet another reason for enlightening the public. “Perception is 95 percent of reality. Unfortunately, the phobias that are out there are real, and you can’t offer in the marketplace products consumers do not want,” he said.
“Farmers cannot endure paying the prices for biotechnological products, such as seeds, and then not be able to sell the crops. The shift in the cost of biotechnology to the shoulders of the farmers is not the way to go. So let’s work together to make sure these products are acceptable to consumers,” he implored fellow panel members. “These are sincerely real economic issues in the farm community. We mustn’t forget it. We must make farmers good partners in this effort.”
Commissioner Graham lauded Etheridge for bringing together the group in the first such meeting of its kind and hoped for many more. However, Margaret Gadsby, director of Public Affairs/Biotechnology North America – Aventis Crop Science, noted the need at future such meetings to include representatives of the groups that the panel members hope to reach.
“We need to have a continuous dialogue with consumers,” she said. “Lack of openness and lack of sensitivity to other views have brought us where we are. We need to maintain openness to move the log jam forward.”