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Monsanto looks for ‘new words’ on GMOs

Monsanto needs to find a new language, a better way to talk to consumers, if the world is to continue to make gains with food quantity and quality, Rob Fraley, one of three winners of the 2013 World Food Prize, told a gathering at Meredith Corporation on Thursday.

The session was a side event to the 2013 Borlaug Dialogue of the World Food Prize being held in Des Moines, October 16-18.

Fraley, chief technology officer of Monsanto and a former Illinois farm boy, talked about the value of biotechnology to a large group of Meredith food, health and agricultural editors. The company’s magazines, websites, and television programming reach some 100 million consumers.

Fraley, who led the development of Roundup Ready crops, began with a primer on genetic engineering. “Biotechnology gives us a way of putting a gene precisely into a plant that is safer than traditional plant breeding," he said. “That’s what the hoopla is all about.”

Fraley made the case for the science behind GMOs, handing out a jump drive with a review of studies on the topic.  But, science alone isn’t enough to sell the value of biotechnology to many consumers, Fraley said.

“We need different approaches than we’ve been taking,” he said. “We’re being challenged to find new words and new analogies that will resonate with consumers.”

Monsanto is making a bigger effort to talk with consumers—“in schools, with moms, with people who like us and people who don’t like us,” Fraley said.

Social media is another tack the company will take with the general public, he added.

And, Monsanto may need to look for a new positioning of its business when it comes to consumer perception, Fraley said.

“People look at us not as a seed company but as first step in the food chain. We need to provide comfort and trust to move the technology forward.”

He appealed to Meredith editors for their attention to the value of GMOs in providing more abundant, healthier food, pointing out, too, that the company supplies about 25% of the vegetable seed in the U.S.

“We need your help in talking to consumers so this technology doesn’t seem scary,” he told the group.  “Our company has done a pretty good job of talking to farmers. But the challenge has been that we have been so focused on the farmer, and now we need to reach out to the consumer.

“What can we do differently?” he asked.

Tomorrow, Fraley, and the other WFP Laureates--Marc Van Montagu, a Belgium researcher, and Mary-Dell Chilton of Syngenta Biotechnology--will appear on a panel looking at the next steps in biotechnology.  Fraley told the Meredith group that Monsanto will be “getting back into wheat,” for one thing. He also mentioned that the company has its sights set on energy crops and vegetables.

Information technology is another ongoing focus, he said, citing Monsanto’s recent purchase of the Climate Corporation, a weather technology and crop insurance company.

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