BLOW TO BIOTECH INDUSTRY MAY NOT BE A BLOW AFTER ALL
Barb Baylor Anderson
For Aventis CropScience, the StarLink biotech corn crisis has been nothing short of a public relations nightmare during the last few months. The company now even seeks to spin off its crop protection division.
But for the biotechnology industry as a whole, lessons learned from StarLink may go a long way toward easing consumer concerns about the use of biotech products in foods. In fact, representatives from throughout the food production chain anticipate that agricultural biotechnology will not likely suffer serious long-term consequences.
"In the short run, the StarLink incident has not been helpful. It tells us that we must be extra, extra careful with biotechnology," says Dan Eramian, vice president of Washington D.C.-based Biotechnology Industry Organization. "In the long run, the public will decide whether biotechnology is used in food production, and because U.S. food regulators responded so quickly to StarLink, consumer confidence in the food supply was not shaken."
In fact, it is the prompt response of Aventis and federal regulators that aided the biotech cause, asserts Gene Grabowski, vice president, communications for Grocery Manufacturers of America (GMA), Washington, D.C.
"Consumers did not see StarLink as a threat to public health because the government moved quickly. Kraft withdrew the taco shells (alleged to contain the Cry9C protein found in StarLink corn) from the market, and there was no drop in consumption as a result," Grabowski says. "Consumers did not make a negative connection between food and biotechnology."
Had the situation been one of human health concern, the government would have made product recalls mandatory and all parties would have acted even more swiftly, adds Angela Dansby, director, public relations for the American Seed Trade Association in Washington, D.C.
"But the StarLink situation was not about food safety, but about legality with respect to regulatory compliance," she says. "The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said it had no evidence that food containing StarLink would cause allergic reactions in people and that the risks, if any, were extremely low. Independent food allergen experts and scientific organizations shared the consensus."
Grabowski agrees. "StarLink should never have been in the food supply, and the anti-biotech movement seized on that to try and slow biotech’s progress," he says. "But our subsequent surveys show people are more aware of biotechnology since StarLink and concerns appear limited."
Given such a "disconnect," Eramian says the door is open to share the benefits about biotechnology. "Any time you introduce new technology, there is a lag time until people learn about it," he says. "That lag is when you are vulnerable to the ‘fire in a theater’ approach taken by critics, and we have to pay attention to that. But this is not a full-blown crisis. It is a wakeup call, an opportunity to help consumers understand biotechnology."
Commodity producers have accepted the challenge to educate consumers, says Ron Heck, a grower from Perry, Iowa. Heck is one of the spokespersons representing a dozen agricultural organizations that have joined together to share the farmers’ perspective on biotechnology.
"Biotechnology’s burden will be a short-term blip," he says. "StarLink brought out the facts about biotechnology, and the debate has heightened awareness of its benefits and safety. That could have a long-term positive impact."
Ag organizations want consumers to realize biotech’s potential from both production and consumption side, Heck adds. "We are taking this opportunity to raise awareness among consumers that biotech foods are better than the products they replace and that biotech’s potential benefits in food production are limitless."
At the same time, biotech watchers say the industry also must help prevent another StarLink from happening. Dansby believes the EPA will discontinue partial approvals for biotech product commercialization. "It is also highly unlikely that any seed company will want to commercialize a product not fully approved for the U.S. marketplace," she says. "Full approvals for human and animal food use will likely become a precondition to approval, and that would benefit all stakeholders. As with any new product or technology, questions continually need to be asked."
GMA’s Grabowski agrees. "We have learned it is unreasonable to expect 100 percent success with segregation, and it has too much cost," he says. "We have also learned the system is working. Consumers trust the government and industry to solve food issues, and we have shown we can. We need to move forward responsibly and carefully." AM
Barb Baylor Anderson is a freelance writer from Edwardsville, Ill., who covers a wide variety of ag issues.