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From Frankenstein to Frankenfood: Talking about agricultural biotechnology

01.may.98, Douglas Powell, Special to Country Guide

The questions are predictable: Why are you messing with nature? Why don't you label everything? Can you guarantee there won't be any long-term risks? Why are you playing God? The products of agricultural biotechnology are reaching mainstream-status at the same time that the North American public is showing an unprecedented interest in the way food is produced. Consumer concerns about food safety -- such as mad cow disease, E. coli O157:H7 and salmonella -- are being pushed from the supermarket all the way back to the farm, such that any and all agricultural practices are coming under public scrutiny.

General media coverage of agricultural biotechnology in Canada over the past six years has been overwhelmingly negative. It's been a different story in the agricultural press, but how many supermarket shoppers read the trades?

General media coverage of agricultural biotechnology in Canada over the past six years has been overwhelmingly negative. It's been a different story in the agricultural press, but how many supermarket shoppers read the trades?

So how best to enter into a conversation with customers or neighbours when the topic of genetic engineering is raised? First, recognize that the public views risk a little differently than those who work with a particular risk on a daily basis. Science is important, and genetic engineering is a powerful tool. But the public has a broader notion of what to be worried about. Issues like, control, benefit, familiarity and trust all enter the public mindset.

Also, you may have a conversation with someone who is adamantly opposed to technologies such as ag biotech. I recently had the opportunity to speak with about 70 organic growers in Durham. My message was that whether you produce food on a small organic farm or as part of a large vertically-integrated conglomerate, producers have to pay attention to bacteria. Because they will always find a way to flourish. And killing customers is a bad business strategy. It took about 30 seconds for the accusations to start flying that the introduction of agricultural biotechnology was part of a corporate conspiracy to control population growth. Go figure.

Once someone's mind is made up, it's going to stay that way. But if producers want agricultural biotechnology as another tool that may fit in their overall, individual production decisions, they are going to have to enter into public conversations with those whose minds are not yet made up. Public opinion surveys in Canada and around the world have shown that consumer support for ag biotech increases dramatically if tied to a perceived benefit. So if someone asks you why you are growing Bt-corn or Roundup Ready soybeans, explain why, that it may lead to reduced chemical use, that it may improve yields.

Labeling is a favorite topic. Critics argue that if agricultural biotechnology is going to be used, at the very least, label everything so people can choose. Choice is a fundamental value for Canadian consumers, as are honesty, balanced budgets, and an inexpensive food supply. The question is not whether to label genetically-engineered foods but how to do it in a cost-effective manner that provides the information shoppers actually want.

Take the humble potato. Should the French fries sold at the local ice-rink-ballpark-soccer-field (possibly derived from Bt-containing potatoes and cooked in oil derived from genetically-engineered canola) carry a sticker proclaiming the involvement of biotechnology? If there is no health risk, as Health Canada has decided in the case of both of these products, the answer is no. Should consumers be able to determine the origins of the fries? Absolutely. And then they can decide for themselves.

Mandatory labeling is expensive and, in a society that values convenience over cooking skills, impractical. Instead, consumers can be informed about the products they purchase through 1-800 numbers or point-of-purchase information. Those who desire organic produce (whatever that means) can make that choice, yet supermarkets still carry regular produce. Those who desire biotech-free products (whatever that means) should also be able to make that choice. But such a choice does not have to be imposed on everyone.

Are there know health risks? Yes, in one instance, an allergen was transferred from one crop to another. Once discovered, the company involved acted responsibly and halted work at the experimental stage. And that is why Canada has a strict approval process, to ensure that such products never reach the marketplace. A regular line is that R40 people were killed and thousands were crippled by exposure to gene-tinkered food.

In 1989 there was an outbreak in the U.S. of a new fatal blood disease, eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome (EMS). The outbreak killed at least 27 and sickened another 1,500. The cause was traced to certain batches of the amino acid, L-tryptophan, manufactured in Japan by Showa Denko and widely available in the U.S. It has been estimated that prior to the outbreak, up to two per cent of the U..S. population took L-tryptophan in the belief it helped manage sleeping difficulties, premenstrual syndrome, stress, and depression -- this in the absence of any medical data supporting the effectiveness of the supplement.

L-tryptophan is manufactured in a fermentation process using a bacterium, Bacillus amyloliquefaciens, in the same way that yeast can ferment the sugars in barley into ethanol in beer. Subsequent investigations by U.S. health authorities revealed that Showa Denko made two changes to its L-tryptophan manufacturing process in 1989; changes which allowed the contamination of L-tryptophan. First, the company began using a strain of B. amyloliquefaciens which had been genetically engineered to produce larger amounts of L-tryptophan. Second, the company reduced the amount of carbon used to filter out impurities from the final product. Studies have shown that the disease-causing molecule only appears during purification, and cases of EMS have been linked to L-tryptophan produced by Showa Denko as early as 1983, long before the use of the genetically-engineered bacterium. Nevertheless, most papers carried stories equating genetic engineering of foodstuffs with death and disability.

Are there environmental risks? Yes. That is why things like resistance management strategies are being put in place to accompany Bt-corn. The goal is to maximize benefits while minimizing risks.

Producers must remain vigilant about enforcing good management practices, and communicating about them. The public wants to know that you are listening to their concerns and are working to reduce a broad range of risks, including food safety issues, but also broader social concerns such as environmental risks, dietary concerns and playing god. If you are not proactive, a risk information vacuum can develop. The idea is that consumers rely on publicly available information to formulate opinions and beliefs about foodborne risks. And, in the absence of credible information, a vacuum develops, one that is eagerly filled by others promoting their own agendas.

One way to stay abreast of public concerns is to watch what people are being told. What are the stories of the day. And in 1998, that story changes daily, and is international. To that end, I produce a daily, electronically-distributed summary of food safety and agricultural issues, to stay ahead of the public discussion, to have an idea of what people are talking about, and to better understand public concerns (it is free; e-mail me at dpowell@uoguelph.ca for more info). Because if you better understand public concerns, and take actions to demonstrate that you understand, you as an individual, as an organization, will be deemed more credible. You will be deemed responsible. You will be deemed trustworthy. And trust is the strongest predictor of consumer support.