PULLMAN — There was more talking than listening when 150 scientists and consumer activists met at the Biotechnology: Science and Society At A Crossroad conference in Seattle, June 1-3.
The meeting was sponsored by the National Agricultural Biotechnology Council and hosted by Washington State University and Oregon State University.
“One of our objectives was to bring both sides to the table for dialogue,” said Sandra Ristow, associate director of the WSU Agricultural Research Center and co-chair of the planning committee.
In opening remarks, Thayne Dutson, OSU Agricultural Sciences Dean, urged scientists to listen with respect and carefully consider alternative views.
There were tensions on both sides and one scientist walked out of a small group discussion in anger. But for the most part, the discourse was civil and helped frame the issues that surround genetic engineering.
Lawrence Busch, distinguished professor of sociology, Michigan State University, and one of two keynote speakers, said society must move beyond the for-or-against debate that has been going on about biotechnology for 15 years.
“This is an absolutely absurd debate,” he said.
In a speech entitled “Lessons Unlearned: How Biotechnology is Changing Society,” Busch urged both sides to avoid simplistic answers. Solving biotechnology issues will require the involvement of everyone in the food supply chain, from farmers to consumers, and including input and food manufacturers, as well as retailers.
Busch noted that every supermarket in the United States now has an organic section. “How many have a GM section?” he asked, in reference to genetically modified foods. He said three supermarket chains dominate world food sales. “They respond to slight shifts in consumer attitudes,” he warned.
He also cautioned that biotechnology holds the risk of disaster for wheat growers. Busch said wheat prices could drop by a third if GMO wheat comes on the market. If that happens, Busch said Eastern Europe stands to gain markets at the expense of North American farmers. GMO stands for genetically modified organisms. The term applies to both plants and animals.
“Poland, Hungary and the Ukraine can easily replace U.S. and Canadian wheat,” he said.
Busch said U.S. farmers already lose $300 million a year because of discrimination against GMOs in the market. He said some major food retailers have banned GMO from their products.
WSU’s R. James Cook, the second keynoter and a member of the National Academies of Science, said all modern innovations in farming systems are met with resistance to change. He described genetically modified organisms as a scientific shortcut. “It’s all the same thing when you get it done,” he said.
Regulation of GMOs has as much to do with politics as science, Cook said. He identified three drives of sustainable agriculture: economics, environmental and natural resource base, and social factors.
Cook said the scientific community must communicate better with consumers. “Scientists have been totally ineffective in getting the message out,” Cook said.
“It took agriculture 20 years to learn to market apples in Japan,” he said. For years exports were blocked by issues like proving that Washington’s apples were free of codling moths.
He urged organic agriculture interests and scientists involved in biotechnology to find a way to work together.
Phillip Bereano, a University of Washington expert on the ethics of genetic engineering, said studies show that about a third of U.S. citizens have concerns about biotechnology. In Europe the situation is reversed, with two-thirds of citizens expressing concerns about the technology.
Carla Chambers, co-owner of the 2,000-acre Stahlbush Island Farms, Corvallis, Ore., said her company sells products throughout the United States and exports to 14 countries. She said the debate isn’t about science, but about traceability, labeling and guarantees that food products are GMO-free.
“Are scientists putting us in conflict with consumers,” she asked. She suggested scientists consider whether they should lead or follow markets.
Responding to Chambers’ question, Busch said science cannot avoid influencing the market place, noting that introduction of the automobile angered carriage makers.
Busch complained that scientists are being asked to do risk analysis on biotechnology with an incomplete database. Besides, he said, scientists in biotechnology aren’t qualified to do risk assessment.
David Schmidt, senior vice president, International Food Information Council, questioned whether consumers have enough information to form intelligent opinions about biotechnology.
Several opponents of biotechnology demanded risk assessments or scientific proof that GMO foods were risk-free. Cook countered that these demands imposed the impossible on scientists.
“No one could predict when (Thomas) Edison invented the light bulb that it would result in coal-fired plants and dams. Should we have not proceeded with the electrical industry,” Cook asked.
“Public education about global agriculture is critical,” said Frederick Kirschenmann, director of Iowa State University’s Leopold Center. He said 800 million people in the world are under nourished. Some 127 million children suffer from Vitamin A deficiency and 400 million women suffer iron deficiency. Over one billion people in Africa and Asia live in extreme poverty.
Kirschenmann said the complexity of the problem is too great to be solved by biotechnology alone. For instance, he said biotechnology won’t have much impact in Africa unless soil fertility problems are solved.
“Farmers are not interested in sustainable poverty,” he said.
John Browne Jr., a partner in Judd Creek Nursery, Burton, Wash., helped focus the regulatory and labeling issues when he asked, “At what proximity to Washington D.C. does politics trump science?”
Bereano praised conference organizers, noting that the Seattle meeting was the first time in NABC’s history that the organization attempted to balance the program with speakers on both sides of the biotechnology argument.
He noted that every technology has winners and losers, and said a degree of hostility is healthy.
Kirschenmann challenged scientists to stop misleading the public that technology can solve the world’s food production problems. “That is immoral by any rudimentary ethics. Simply inventing new technologies is not likely to satisfy needs,” he said.
“Farmers are on a treadmill to produce more income to pay last years’ bills,” he said.
But, Kirschenmann said society will use every technology available. The question is, how will technologies be used.
Kirschenmann urged scientists to shift from single tactic to multiple strategy tactics to solve world food problems. “Use technology to understand systems,” he said, cautioning that systems cannot be understood simply by examining component parts. They must be studied in their complexity.
John R. Anderson Jr., technology development manager, Monsanto, said it takes $80 million and eight years to develop a trait in a plant variety, and half the time is consumed meeting regulatory requirements.
Anderson said biotechnology helps conserve the environment. He cited studies that show that farmers who don’t use herbicide tolerant seeds aren’t likely to engage in conservation tillage.
Steve Garrett, a WSU extension educator, said those who oppose biotechnology perceive scientists as arrogant. He accused Anderson of patronizing opponents.
Trudy Bialic, editor of PCC Natural Markets, Seattle, cautioned scientists not to underestimate the depth of consumer feelings about biotechnology. She urged that biotechnology not be used on food crops, but approved its use in pharmaceuticals.
Jill McCluskey, a WSU agricultural economist who studies consumer attitudes towards genetically modified foods, said many consumers focus on food because they are frustrated, and food is an area in which they can take control.
She said voluntary labeling addresses consumer fears.
McCluskey is studying consumer attitudes about GMO foods in Japan, Norway and China. Her research shows that Chinese consumers perceive little or no risk from GMO foods and would even pay a premium for GMO foods if they offered desirable qualities.
Japanese and Norwegian consumers, however, want to avoid GMO foods. Discounted prices are needed to sell to them.
McCluskey’s research involve 400 randomly sampled consumers in Japan and another 400 in Norway, and 599 in China.
Some concerns about biotechnology were clearly aimed at profit motives.
Craig Winters, executive director of The Campaign, Shoreline, Wash., said biotechnology has become a lightning rod for anger against corporations.
The lack of logic evidenced by some GMO opponents frustrated many scientists. One young woman who said she saw seven years of drought in Niger, during which no crops were harvested, opposed genetically engineered crops on grounds they might compromise historic, native agriculture.
William R. Lacey, vice provost, University of California, quoted Sir Winston Churchill: “We must take change by the hand or it will take us by the throat.”
Thomas A. Lumpkin, former chair of the WSU crop and soil sciences department and now director general of the Asian Vegetable Research and Development Center in Taiwan, expressed strong reservations about using food crops to produce pharmaceuticals.
Lumpkin said insurance companies may prove more effective than government in regulating biotechnology. He said during one period the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service didn’t show up for three years to inspect biotechnology research in WSU’s crop and soil sciences department.
Lumpkin suggested banning use of all food crops for “pharming” so pharming won’t jeopardize genetic engineering in food crops.
Paul Jepson, an OSU entomologist, urged improved public education. “Public education about global agriculture is critical,” he said.
It’s doubtful that anyone left the conference with a changed mind on the issues, but perhaps a few left with a mind more open to the values of other voices in the GMO discussion.
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