Consumer Resistance of Biotech is Only a “Perception”

Farmer Gene

BIO is in Chicago for the 2010 BIO International Convention.  Visit this space for updates direct from our food and ag sessions.

By Val Giddings

How Public Perception Affects Adoption of Technologies that Help Feed the World was the topic Wednesday afternoon of one of the liveliest panels we’ve seen in a while.  Moderated by Sally Squires (Weber Shandwick, former Washington Post writer), the panel included Margaret Zeigler (Congressional Hunger Center), Michael Specter (The New Yorker, author of Denialism:  How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens our Lives), Maywa Montenegro (Seed Magazine) and Bruce Chassy (University of Illinois).   

The session was well attended, nearly SRO, with almost a hundred folks in the audience.  Topics ranged widely:  common misconceptions about biotech and how people assess different types of risk (usually at odds with the data).  Does public perception affect the adoption of biotechnology?  Of course it does.  But perhaps not always as one might expect.  Data the world over show opposition to be more theoretical than real:  folks may say they are opposed, but at point of purchase, with few exceptions, they almost always buy based on quality and cost, where biotech foods stack up very well indeed. 

But the perception of consumer resistance makes political decision-makers reluctant to remove barriers, and the perception of resistance is the product of smoke, mirrors, and an aggressive, well-funded, and ruthless campaign of unrelenting mendacity by self-styled “green” groups who have been called “murderous hypocrites.”  Too bad we couldn’t get former European Commission staffer (now retired) Mark Cantley, to join the group and name this beast.

The howlers:  In response to a question as to how the situation could be improved, one panelist opined that “We (the sorts of folks in the audience) should “stop vilifying Alice Waters and Michael Pollan…”  Excuse me?  Fair disclosure – as the recipient of no small amount of vilification at the hands and pens of biotech opponents, my view may be colored.  But the last time I checked the vilification balance was pretty lopsided, with about a hundred examples originating with the mendacious for every one from the data-based pro-science camp.  This is not, I am said to say, a textbook example of moral equivalence. 

Another howler: One panelist offered her informed opinion that small farmers in Central America are opposed to biotech because they are skeptical of technological innovation.  Let’s see… would these be the same custodians of maize landraces, who have an unmatched and unbroken innovative history spanning ten millennia during which their approach to plant stewardship has made a fetish of importing germplasm, conducting experimental crosses with it, and selecting products from the results to weave into their ongoing harvests?  Explanation FAIL.

Third howler:  A panelist suggested that the role of NGOs has been, on balance, positive in the area of biotech and food.  Yes, there have been a small number of vocal NGOs in opposition, but the vast majority of them are honestly and helpfully focused on trying to improve food security for the poor of the earth.  Well… I’m not sure I can do better than to quote my teenage daughter:  OMG!!!!  I am glad to hear that some NGOs are doing good things on food and hunger issues.  But until they break ranks with Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, and Friends of the Earth to condemn their profoundly misguided, contra-factual, and anti-human campaigns against crops that reduce the environmental footprint of agriculture while increasing quality and safety of food and the economics of smallholder farming they are complicit and indictable.

But what’s a good panel without a howler or two?  If you missed it, you missed it.  Don’t make the same mistake next year.

Giddings is a genetics PhD and  biotech consultant with nearly 30 years regulatory, media, and policy experience.  He was a Vice President for BIO Food & Agriculture from 1997 to 2006. He can be reached at [email protected].

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