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WFP: Consumer connections needed

The biotechnology side of agriculture hasn't done a good enough job communicating to the consumer public the sector's safety and importance to the larger goal of feeding a growing and increasingly hungry planet, experts say. That effort is renewing with the gathering of global food and agriculture stakeholders at the 2013 World Food Prize this week in Des Moines, Iowa.

This year's award -- given to three pioneers in the ag biotechnology field -- has netted both praise and criticism from different corners of the ag and food industries, a gap that the award should bridge, says Robert Fraley, executive vice president and chief technology officer for Monsanto Corporation. Fraley is joined by Marc Van Montagu, plant scientist and former director of the VIB department of plant systems biology at Universiteit Gent in Belgium and Mary-Dell Chilton, plant genetics researcher, Distinguished Science Fellow at Syngenta Biotechnology, Inc., and former Syngenta vice president for agricultural biotechnology, in being awarded the World Food Prize this year. This year is also the centennial of the birth of Norman Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution, and whose efforts are to thank for the establishment of the prize.

"[A rumor] I can't stand is when you hear educated people talking about food safety and the safety of GMOs. There have been so many thousands of studies performed by regulatory bodies around the world and peer-reviewd by the EU, the National Academy, that basically say we have unequivocal safety in our technology. There's not truth to these stories and rumors of any safety impact from the technology," Fraley said during a press conference Wednesday with Chilton and Montagu. "These products have been in the marketplace for 20 years. And there's never been a single food safety issue from this technology. Its track record is absolutely impeccable."

Part of the reason for the gap between consumer understanding and today's modern biotechnology can be attributed to the parts of food production these developments have touched. They're far from the consumer, making it easy for fears -- no matter how far from reality -- to overtake scientific research as the basis for perceptions, adds Chilton.

"The first biotech products were simple -- single genes that made a dramatic change. These were changes that the farmer could appreciate, not changes that the end-user could appreciate," she says. "In the future, we can be in a place where we can change biological traits, things the consumer can appreciate. They will change the nutrition of the crop plant, for one. That will help facilitate more communication with the consumer."

Part of that communication with consumers will come through labeling. Though the connection between consumer understanding and acceptance of crop biotechnology and how it's labeled on food products on the grocery shelf may seem loose, those food labels carry major connotations. And, Fraley and other biotechnology leaders are in favor of voluntary, not mandatory, labeling when it comes to genetically modified ingredients.

"If a company wants to source GMO-free ingredients and stamp that on their products, we support that. If there's anything I could wave my magic wand over, it would be that the FDA would authorize a GMO label and create a standard for it," Fraley says. "Why wouldn't voluntary labels that any company can put on their products meet the needs for consumer information and the right to know? On that label, it has things like fats, calories, unsaturated fats . . . things from a health perspective that alert if they have health concerns. Biotechnology has not had a single food safety issue in 20 years, and the implications there's a health issue associated with it doesn't make any scientific sense. That's something we oppose. We support a company's rights for voluntary labels. We can't support misleading labels that imply there's something unsafe about biotech products."

Down the road, Fraley says biotechnology in crop development will continue to evolve, eventually coalescing with information technology to add to the precision and efficiency of raising a crop. But even with enhanced abilities to more precisely raise a crop will come continued regulatory scrutiny, a fight the industry must continue to win -- largely through a hopefully closer connection to the food consumer -- if the world's food supply is to be sustained.

"The challenge becomes are we going to be able to limit all of this by regulation? If I were the head of research at a drug company, I'd get FDA approval. As the head of research at a seed company, if I want to sell seed in the U.S., I have to get EPA, FDA, and USDA approval, and because they're sold in 20 countries around the world, I have to get approval from the ministries of health, safety, and the environment of all those countries," Fraley says. "It's the safest food produced in the history of man, and it costs about $150 billion in regulatory work to achieve that."

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