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There is no more hotly contested struggle in global agriculture than the positioning of genetically modified (GM) products within the food supply. In the North American market, a quick look at the polling data gives both camps ammunition for bolstering their viewpoints.

An April 2003 International Food Information Council (IFIC) poll found 62 percent of American consumers believe biotechnology will benefit them or their families in the next five years. Two percent of consumers listed "genetically engineered" as information they'd like to see added to labels.

Contrast that to a July 2003 ABC News Poll indicating 92 percent of consumers want to see biotech food products labeled and 55 percent of consumers are less likely to buy a product labeled as having biotech components.

With that as a backdrop, farmers in the United States continue to use the various biotechnology-derived seed products to improve production efficiency. Plantings of biotech corn and soybean seed, at 40 percent and 81 percent of acres respectively, are both up 6 percent in 2003 versus 2002, and biotech cotton acreage is up 2 percent for a total of 73 percent of acres, according to the National Agriculture Statistics Service Acreage Survey in June 2003.

Yet organic food, which by definition in the United States cannot be genetically modified, continues its double-digit rate of growth — a climb that started more than a decade ago.

Understanding The Benefits

The presence of GM products in the U.S. food supply has not meant the technology is well understood or well accepted. Progress toward acceptance will require, at minimum, a GM food product that captures the public's attention and instills confidence, a move from technical/scientific positioning of GM food products into benefits positioning and effective navigation of a shifting global regulatory environment.

As a standard bearer, the consumer food equivalent in human medicine is GM insulin. Insulin produced through biotechnology saves lives, is more effective than the product extracted from pigs, and supplies can be more effectively controlled. Eli Lilly says 4 million people take insulin created through a biotechnology process, so the value of biotechnology in human medicine has been established.

In agricultural production, we're continuing to see various iterations of production trait products. Consumers see no direct benefit from products such as Roundup Ready soybeans or cotton. Ringspot-resistant papayas don't exactly capture the consumer's imagination, although they have saved the papaya industry in Hawaii. U.S. consumers indicate that biotechnology is OK when it's used to reduce pesticide use, such as in Bt corn hybrids or cotton varieties, but the actual benefit is not nearly as obvious as if someone had developed a grass seed that didn't require a four-step lawn program.

The summer issue of Yield magazine, in a study from the Council for Biotechnology Information, Washington, D.C., pointed out that consumers think cancer-fighting tomatoes with elevated levels of lycopene are a valuable product. "Great," says Hector Quemada, Ph.D., "but both consumers and the biotechnology industry are going to need to show some more patience." Quemada is founder of Crop Technology Consulting Inc., Kalamazoo, Mich., and works with companies and governments in the evaluation of plant-based biotechnology projects.

"Most of the close-in programs are still focused on genes that can eliminate the need for a pesticide. Further out are the programs working on consumer-direct advantages, such as biofortification, which works to improve nutritional traits such as micronutrients or works to eliminate an allergen from the food supply," Quemada says.

Biotech Branding

Even if the trait is developed, it's still a long struggle to get it approved and then to get it marketed as a recognizable, desirable product, Robert Korstanje says. Korstanje, a senior associate with Global Agriculture and Food Consultancy, has addressed biotechnology while guiding new product commercialization for Kellogg Company and as a seed company marketer.

"Some designing and branding of conventional produce items is occurring, such as an effort to track smaller-sized (4 to 6 lb.) seedless watermelon all the way to the consumer, but for the most part, the channel isn't set up to handle the product separately without adding to the cost," he says. "Then the question in the case of the biotech tomato becomes, 'Is the consumer willing to pay the added cost for the additional lycopene?'"

More to the point, if the consumer doesn't want or see a benefit for biotech, the consumer won't get biotech, Korstanje says.

"The customer is king, and food companies are going to develop and market what we think the customer wants to buy," Korstanje says. "It became very clear in 1999 that EU consumers, with a particularly strong emphasis out of England, did not want residue of biotech crops in the final Kellogg's food products."

Despite his Kellogg's experience, Korstanje says increased consumer involvement and understanding of food production could be good for biotechnology.

The focus on organics and the increasing attention being paid to antibiotic and hormone use in livestock production is indicative of consumer concerns not only about food quality but also food production methods. "People are asking questions about the sustainability of current production methods. We don't want chemicals used, but we're spoiled by the cheap food supply we've enjoyed," Korstanje says. "And that provides an opportunity to highlight potential GM benefits."

The two biggest current support points he sees for biotechnology in food are reduced chemical use and lower food costs through better yield and disease resistance traits.
Given the state of biotech crop development, the best type of product to be brought forward in the current environment, he says, would be similar to the late blight resistant potato that is currently being tested by University of Wisconsin researchers.

The trait being introduced through biotechnology — blight resistance — comes from a wild potato in Mexico, so there is no cross-species mixing to cause consumer anxiety. If growers were able to avoid spraying they could eliminate 500 tons of fungicide applications in the state of Wisconsin alone*. Production costs for the potatoes would go down, while yields would remain at current levels.

"Organic standards prevent the use of biotechnology, so you'll never get the committed organic buyer, but there are a lot of consumers who are sampling organics and like the idea of reduced pesticide use," Korstanje says. "They also like the idea of cheap food. Additionally, this product is using a gene from within the same species, so the squeamishness factor is reduced."

Challenging Areas

He says two more messages can be added with future developments. There is a lot of work being done for resistance to diseases in tropical fruit production. In addition to the messages of in-species gene transfer, reduced pesticide use and cheap food, we could add messages of year-round supply and helping develop agricultural economies in some tropical developing countries.

But, according to Quemada, even with those types of benefit messages, the regulatory situation continues to be difficult to negotiate.

There's not much agreement globally on biotechnology, and consumers get their information globally. It's easy for consumers to see conflicting regulations and wonder which government in which country really knows what's going on.

Some countries, in an effort to convince consumers of the safety of biotech products, have unintentionally passed regulations that severely handicap local development programs. "In specific instances, countries wrote regulatory standards based on overseeing work by large multinational companies such as Monsanto or Dupont, who are capable of generating and analyzing large amounts of data," Quemada says. "When a local researcher or small lab wants to work on a local disease problem, the reporting requirements become prohibitive. For these local programs to grow, a different set of in-country standards may be required."

A new challenge area of regulatory framework is in the variable application of the Precautionary Principle, Quemada says. The principle says, basically, organizations need to prove no harm is possible before introducing a product or technology into the marketplace. The Precautionary Principle is typically paired with a benefit/risk analysis to provide a balance.

Proponents of the Precautionary Principle say the uncertainty surrounding current technical innovation means much more caution needs to be exercised, to the point of not introducing technology with known benefits, such as golden rice, due to a perceived risk.

"The great challenge of the Precautionary Principle arises, first, because science cannot evaluate every future scenario, and second, as has been said before, science can't prove something is completely safe," Quemada says.

To move beyond the current standings of the industry will require a product, a purpose and a global strategy. We're all part of the equation as consumers and companies come to agreement about how biotechnology will (or will not) be part of our futures.

*Milwaukee Journal, July 15, 2003, "Famine fungus likely history: Gene resists potato blight"

Tim Oliver is a principal with Morgan&Myers, a communications firm that specializes in the food and agriculture industries.

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