Biotechnology — whose voice should be heard?

Biotech pioneers won this year’s World Food Prize, 
but the ‘Frankenfood’ debate still rages on in North America

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It was hard not to smile when one of our African colleagues on a CropLife International tour at the World Food Prize event in Des Moines, Iowa asked a presenter to address rumours that clothes made from genetically modified (GM) crops will make a man bald and impotent.

After all, after nearly 20 years of growing GM crops, the “Frankenfood” angle on the debate in our part of the world is long over. Or is it?

The latest Prevention magazine, a mainstream publication targeting aging baby boomers, contains a four-page advertorial sponsored by a company selling organic products. It coincides with campaigns for mandatory labelling in several U.S. states and makes a pretty convincing pitch through an “all-star panel of GMO experts — a passionate filmmaker and father, a concerned mother and food activist, a registered dietitian, and the founder of an independently run organic food manufacturing company.”

The filmmaker, who is making a film called “GMO OMG”, discusses the “systematic corporate takeover of and the potential loss of humanity’s most precious and ancient inheritance: seeds.” The registered dietitian worries that there is no long-term health data and promotes a GM-free diet, for which labelling would be necessary.

The mother/food industry analyst said labels would make it easier to trace whether allergies are related to conventional soybeans or the GM varieties. And the founder of Nature’s Path, the corporate sponsor of the advertorial, opines that everyone has the right to know what’s in their food.

Who do you think the average consumer is going to believe — corporate scientists (some of whom happen to be bald) who say there is no proof GMOs do any harm, or dietitians, mothers and filmmakers who say there is no proof that they don’t?

All this explains why CropLife International invited 40 journalists from 23 countries to attend tours and World Food Prize events in Des Moines, Iowa, all expenses paid. (We participated in the tour, but paid our own travel and accommodation.)

The tour was well organized and informative, although it goes without saying we heard a lot about how biotechnology will help double production to feed nine billion people by 2050 and the important role journalists play in countering misinformation spread by “activists.” In other words, giving a voice to those who oppose GM crops is tantamount to condemning the world to perpetual hunger and environmental degradation.

But the outrage over this year’s choice of World Food Prize recipients isn’t limited to the ragtag cluster who demonstrated at the event. It includes scientists, authors and food-security advocates, many of whom challenge the focus on a single technology to solve a problem as multi-faceted and complex as world food security.

My science versus your science

The latest World Food Prize laureates tried to stake out the moral high ground with statements that biotech crops have been proven unequivocally safe. Yet a coalition of 90 scientists, physicians and academics — including a former World Food Prize winner — countered with a statement saying no such consensus exists. Both proponents and opponents accuse each other of incomplete or outright “bad” science.

So much for “science-based decision-making.”

From this desk, we’ve seen no compelling evidence that the traits on the market today have resulted in harm to humans or livestock. We’ve seen the amazing capacity of biotechnology tools to accelerate crop improvement, with or without GMOs.

On the environmental front, we’ve seen this technology compound the existing problem of resistant weeds, because it further consolidates weed control around herbicide solutions. It further consolidates the food system period.

But mostly, we’ve been critical of the biotech industry for failing to recognize that ultimately, it is food buyers — not farmers — who are its customers. That failure has resulted in the backlash, the ongoing push for labelling and the extraordinary proposition that people living in the world’s hungriest places aren’t at all sure that they help in this way.

We’ll say this again. The customer is always right, even though not always rational. The only way of determining value in a market-driven economy is by what people can be convinced to buy. Thus, food marketing is more about perception than it is about science. If it were purely based on science and nutrition, there would be only one brand of yogurt, one type of bread and no need for big-box stores.

World Food Prize winner Robb Fraley, Monsanto’s chief biotechnology officer, had some insightful comments. He suggested that maybe the industry finally gets it. But it has a lot of catching up to do.

About the author

Vice-President of Content

Laura Rance

Laura Rance is vice-president of content for Glacier FarmMedia. She can be reached at [email protected]



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