Don't expect help from the food industry in defending genetically modified or biotechnology crops and food. Right now that industry is running scared from the controversy that first erupted in Europe and has spilled over into the U.S. and elsewhere, according to Dr. Susan Harlander, a Minnesotan who has been involved in biotechnology for 25 years.
Harlander, now a private consultant who has worked for food giants Land O'Lakes and Pillsbury, told the Western Crop Protection Association annual meeting that food companies will protect their brands at any cost.
That was the motivation behind the recent Taco Bell taco shell recall because genetically modified corn was found to have been used in making shells. It doesn't make any difference that there was virtually no risk to public health, the fear of brand damage was too great for Taco Bell to take.
Forty-seven genetically crops had been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for production in the U.S. and there are 6.9 million acres of crops planted to biotech crops in the U.S. this year, down only slightly from the seven million acres grown the year before. This, she said, was only because of a decline in Bt corn because of reduced corn borer pressure.
Harlander, a molecular biologist, is an outspoken proponent of biotechnology. She has complete confidence in GMO crops because of the vigorous federal testing that is done before they are released.
And, most consumers are not concerned about food from GMO crops. Only 30 percent of American consumers are even aware of what a GMO is.
Few calls biotech related The food industry receives 2.5 to 3 million calls a year on its hotlines, said Harlander, and only .1 to .2 percent are biotech related..."not enough to even register on the radar screen." When there is a blip, it usually follows a new report on the subject or an organized effort by an activist group.
Yet, the controversy will not go away and the public continues to have questions about what some have called "frankenfoods." It does no good to try to explain what a GMO product is to the public. Even talking about "genes" in foods is something consumers do not want to here about.
Harlander suggested that agriculture and the industry tell consumers about the benefits of GMO crops, like the Golden Rice and what is could do to prevent iron deficiency and blindness in children.
"Talk about this new technology in the context of traditional farming," she suggested. This would mean discussing worm damage to corn or how nightshade can contaminate soybeans and how Bt corn and herbicide-resistance in beans can reduce that damage and contamination without the use of pesticides.
"Talk about how GMO crops improve the nutritional quality of food," she added.
"And, remember these `public interest groups' do not necessarily represent the interest of the public," she said. There are other, hidden agendas that should be told about to consumers. "Identify the motives of the radical groups."
The debate over biotechnology has been a roller coaster ride. The announcement of Golden Rice was an upswing and the Taco Bell incident was a downslide. How it will play out in the long term is of concern to Harlander.
She found it ironic that companies like Gerber, Heinz, Frito-Lay and McDonalds have announced they will not accept GMO crops yet many of the ingredients used to process their products come from GMO crop.
As much as American agricultural and food industries would like the issue to go away, it will not any time soon. However, Harlander said it can be defused with straightforward, honest explanations of what GMOs are and how they can benefit man and farmer alike.