The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Biotech and Consumer Education

Biotech and Consumer Education

The Food Journal

January 20, 2014

Soybean production and its farmers:

“Biotechnology has given us the tools and ability to identify all of these genes already found in nature. Many of these genes are already in our plants. Plant breeders are just learning how to turn them on, how to suppress them to sustainably feed the world,” says farmer and ASA VP Kevin Hoyer. “For the farmers, biotech adds sustainability to our food system. Sustainability must encompass economic, environmental and social aspects, which can be very tricky some days. If you were to put a billboard up about farmers and biotech, it would state it has everything to do with the sustainability of our food system, our environment and our social system.” Kevin Hoyer expands on soybean practices in his full interview. Interview with Kevin Hoyer, VP, American Soybean Association

Nancy Kavazanjian, a Wisconsin soybean farmer and USB farmer-leader, sees farming as a science but also an art. For her farm, biotech crops were a natural progression. “As farmers, we look ahead and we plan, always striving for continuous improvement. When the first biotech crops came along, we heard about them at meetings and then looked at test plots and trials at seed companies and the university near us. We talked with the crop consultant who works just for us and got his knowledge on science for farming and what would work best for our programs,” Nancy explains. “We are innovators, so we like the new things and look for what is better, yields better crops and keeps the pests away.” Nancy talks more on engaging the entire food system to build consumer trust in her full interview. Interview with Nancy Kavazanjian, soybean farmer and USB farmer-leader

Labeling and government regulation:

The GMA is proposing key principals their members feel are important for Federal legislation that deals with GMO labeling. “GMA is looking for a federal solution to GMO labeling that would require the FDA to set up a voluntary labeling standard for foods that do not contain GMOs and determine the safety of GMO products.” (PoliticoPro)  

While this stems from the desire to have improved consumer confidence in our food regulation system in this country, FDA oversees GMOs now through their consultation process. USDA and EPA may also be involved depending on the trait. So far the agency finds “such foods are generally as nutritious as foods from comparable traditionally bred plants.” (FDA Q&A on Food from Genetically Engineered Plants)

Where can consumers find answers?

The United Soybean Board understands it is complicated and daunting for consumers to sort through the polarized statements about GMOs. Therefore, their organization’s website points the reader to the Council for Biotechnology Information’s site gmoanswers as well as the Center for Food Integrity’s Best Food Facts and Common Ground’s GMO facts. Consumers are best served when they seek out knowledgeable sources and experts on biotech food, and ask the proper questions.

The International Food Information Council Foundation’s Guide to Understanding Modern Agriculture contains key messages on food produced by biotechnology, that are simple to communicate to employees who can then support farmers' sustainability efforts through biotech farming. The Institute of Food Technologists just released What You Need to Know about GMOS, GM Crops, and The Techniques of Modern Biology which has a companion video.

“Part of our mission as farmers is to make consumers feel comfortable about what we are doing. We want to have the conversations,” says Ron Moore, VP, ASA. “In Illinois, where I am from, there is the Illinois Farm Families Program which works with urban Chicago mothers. They come to the land, tour it, and we answer any and all questions about the practices we use and how we care about our animals. They are encouraged to blog about their experiences. What they see… write it down. Our farmers are answering questions honestly.”

Not here but there:

In many countries around the world, labels are required for GMOs. In these countries it is most often not the attribute that is labeled, it is the process — the use of biotech. GMOs in these countries often tend to be used for animal feed, and the milk, meat and eggs derived from these animals generally are not required to be labeled. Many of these countries allow enzymes, food additives and flavors produced using the technology to not be labeled. Some make a distinction between food produced “from” a crop using biotechnology versus something produced “with” a component made from biotechnology. Often the food companies reformulate so as not to have to label their products. This results in no choice for consumers.  

While biotech and GMO is a politically charged topic, our farmers are still challenged with other more significant issues that require the spotlight such as fertilizer issues (TFJ: Fertilizer: A Necessary Output), water shortages (TFJ: The Problem with the Price of Water) and immigration labor reform (TFJ: Immigration Labor Reform: Agriculture front and center).  

Where retailers and CPGs find themselves in the mix:

If you ask retailers if biotech is a top of mind issue for domestic consumers, the answer by two out of three retail dietitians is it’s a “#1 Fact vs. Fiction issue.” (Supermarket News, 2013). When the average consumer becomes aware of the issue, the essence of the issue relates to risk to the consumer and their family. People don’t want to accept any form of risk absent a benefit that’s important to them. With most biotech products the benefits that accrue to the consumer are only tangential — more food, less expensive food. They are not aware of the environmental benefits and options for sustainable production the use of the technology gives producers and our society. 

“People should have a choice to know where their food is coming from and where their food is grown,” says Ray Gaesser, President, ASA. “It is hard for us to understand how people would have fear in ways we grow our food, your food, since all the food in the US has been well tested. It’s the marketing of some groups that communicate the message that the process of growing some foods is less safe than others is what I believe brings confusion to consumers.” Interview with Ray Gaesser, President and Ron Moore, VP, American Soybean Association

As most consumers seem to regard their grocery store as a food pillar of the community, it may be the responsibility of the retailer to increase their communication on biotech foods.