House Ag Subcommittee Considers the Societal Benefits of Biotechnology

Farmer Gene

“Organic farmers do not need to demonize conventional farmers, we are one agriculture,” opened Ranking Member. Kurt Schrader (OR-05).

On July 9, 2014 at 10:00am, the House Committee on Agriculture, Subcommittee on Horticulture, Research, Biotechnology, and Foreign Agriculture held a public hearing “To consider the societal benefits of biotechnology”.

Witnesses included:

  • Dr. David Just, Professor, Co-Director, Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs, Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY
  • Dr. Calestous Juma, Professor, Practice of International Development, and Director, Science, Technology, and Globalization Project, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Cambridge, MA

The hearing was covered by Bill Tomson of Politico Pro who reported that witnesses on Wednesday testified that “genetically modified crops will save society as we know it by preventing starvation, curing diseases and getting kids to eat their fruits and veggies, and more Americans would get on board with the science if they just understood its benefits.”

Tomson also reported that the lawmakers and witnesses at the hearing agreed that “mandatory labeling requirements are a bad idea.”

Sarah Gonzalez of AgriPulse also covered the biotechnology subcommittee hearing on Wendesday and reported that witnesses testified that the “agricultural industry is not doing enough to communicate biotechnology’s benefits to society.”

Gonzalez also noted concerns from the lawmakers present:

“My biggest worry is that under the guise of trying to inform the consumer we actually misinform the consumer,” Schrader said. “We run the risk of making labeling an almost irrelevant and moot point. And that would be a shame.”

On behalf of Chairman Austin Scott, Rep. Rodney Davis presented opening remarks. Davis spoke on the benefits of biotechnology including how it can help save money, lives and the environment. He touched on such advances as Golden Rice, biotech wheat to combat gluten intolerance, and the use of biotech to combat citrus greening, ensuring consumer access to Vitamin D.

A former organic farmer, Ranking Member Schrader spoke to the safety of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and argued that conventional, organic and gm crops can coexist. Schrader made several powerful remarks admonishing the population minority who spread misinformation around the technology leading to consumer confusion.

We encourage you to read the witness testimonies in their entirety, however below are some key excerpts from the panelists.

Dr. David Just testified on consumer perceptions of GMOs and the benefits of biotechnology, while arguing that there needs to be better communication around these two issues:

“When given the choice between conventional foods and GMOs, consumers express a strong preference for conventional foods. However, my research has shown that when the same choice is presented in such a way that consumers can understand the reasons for genetic modification, they overwhelmingly choose GMOs. For example, consumers would rather buy poultry that has been genetically modified to resist diseases than chicken that has been fed antibiotics to accomplish the same purpose. In fact, almost 85% prefer genetic modification in this case…

“Consumers have developed misperceptions regarding the benefits of biotechnology in part because the industry does not explain those benefits to them. Industry has focused understandably on marketing the benefits of growing these crops to farmers, leaving consumers with a latent understanding of why genetic modifications are introduced into the food supply to begin with…

“If we are to turn the tide of irrational consumer fears regarding biotechnology, firms that produce GMOs must make a concerted effort to communicate both the direct health benefits to US consumers from reduced use of chemicals in food production, and the indirect benefits to developing country consumers of more abundant and lower-cost food…”

Dr. Calestrous Juma opens by touching on intellectual property and biotechnology,

“The rise of the US biotechnology industry is largely a result of reforms in intellectual property rights that allowed for the patenting of living forms. However, global regulatory hurdles have made it difficult for society to fully reap the benefits of biotechnology.

“Society’s innovative and entrepreneurial potentialities will be hobbled if the regulatory process for new biotechnology products takes as long as the duration of patent protection, which is at most 20 years. It has taken as long for the United States to complete the approval process for transgenic salmon. Worldwide, even more onerous and discriminatory hurdles stand in the way of societal benefits of biotechnology.

“Biotechnology product pipelines are being choked by discriminatory regulations, labeling threats, and a rising tide of product disparagement and misinformation.”

Juma then testified on the numerous benefits of genetically modified crops:

“The largest benefits of transgenic crops are economic and derive from increased income from higher yields and resistance to loss…

“Second, transgenic crops offer the ability to biofortify key crops, which is especially helpful in numerous countries where Vitamin A deficiency is a concern (e.g., Golden Bananas in Uganda and Golden Rice in the Philippines)…

“Finally, transgenic crops offer environmental benefits by requiring less spraying of pesticides, reducing the amount of arable land needed for increased agricultural production, and combating the effects of climate change through the development of drought-resistant crops…

“The balance of evidence suggests that transgenic crops offer no greater risks than their conventional counterparts, and their economic, nutritional, and environmental benefits are extensive. Yet whether or not the crops described above reach the farmers and consumers who need them most depends on the regulatory agencies and the lengthy and costly approval processes of each country, as well as on public resistance to transgenic crops in general.”

Dr. Olga Bolden-Tiller argued that while the “science is advancing; what is not advancing adequately is the communication and conversations about biotechnology with all components of our society.” Additionally, she highlighted key scientific facts around genetically modified organisms (GMOs):

“The incorporation of GMO crops into operations in developing countries result in increased farm incomes and reduced labor associated with agricultural practices, allowing for more time for education and other avenues of income;

“It predicted that food production must double within the next 30 years to meet the demand of the projected population;

“Biotechnology provides scientists with answers that can result in the production of more affordable foods while sustaining the environment. This is not to say that technology should be haphazardly implored, as care must be taken and questions must be asked.”

Joanna Lidback, owner of a small dairy farm in Vermont, spoke on the challenges of using GMOs in a state which recently passed a GMO labeling law:

“We face a challenge brought on by what many in agriculture see as irrational consumer fears creating the potential for limiting our ability to use biotechnology in order to best utilize the resources we have in a sustainable way.

“In many cases, this has already happened as we saw with the controversy over use of recombinant Bovine Somatotropin (rBST), a technology that has no adverse effects on human health. Consumers, not understanding the science and being driven by fear stirred up by anti-agriculture activists, rejected this technology for no sound reason. While many said that rBST was an example of the evils of ‘big agriculture,’ the truth is that many small dairy farms used rBST as a way to improve and grow their businesses, better utilizing existing resources and without needing more capital expenditures…”

Being forward, Lidback notably concludes with some emotional remarks:

“As a mother and a consumer, I do not purchase organic or non-GMO food in the store. I will support my local community, however, and may purchase organic or non-GMO food at a farmers’ market or directly at a farm stand.

“I generally do not believe in paying the higher premium for these foods because they provide no added nutritional or other health benefits.

“With a growing family and a growing farm business, we have lots of other places to spend our hard-earned money. Furthermore, I feel secure in the steps that have been taken to the food produced and available for sale in the grocery store to ensure it is safe to feed my family.”

Visit the House Committee on Agriculture site to watch an archived webcast of the hearing.

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