Despite the hype and the hyperbole of negative media attention, biotechnology promises to be a dominant force in 21st century agriculture.
‘It's not going away,” says Lisle Cook, chairman, U.S. Grains Council. “Biotechnology offers tremendous benefits to the world: reduced costs to producers and improved food quality to consumers. We can't allow emotion to run the technology out of agriculture.”
Cook discussed the pitfalls and the potential for biotechnology acceptance at the Commodity Classic, a joint trade show and conference of the American Soybean Association and the National Corn Growers' Association held recently in San Antonio.
Cook says U.S. agriculture currently has “a lot of fence mending to do,” to restore confidence in agricultural products in general and in genetically modified (GM) products specifically.
“We experienced a serious, embarrassing breach of the regulatory system with the StarLink corn episode,” Cook says. “We understand that (allowing a GM corn product not approved for human consumption into the food channel) is a regulatory issue, not a food safety issue. It is extremely unlikely that StarLink poses any allergy threat.
“But that situation hurt our credibility and resulted in a slowdown in exports to Japan and Korea. We are addressing those concerns and are working on testing procedures to (make regulation more reliable) and to get those exports back up.
“We believe this is a short-term issue and we've learned some valuable and expensive lessons from the experience.”
In the future, Cook says, U.S. companies should not commercialize any GM product without full approval of both U.S. and overseas markets.
“We've found that our split approval system is not working,” he says. “Farmers must know what they have in planter boxes.”
He says the technology faces other challenges, as well. “We've lost markets in Europe, and we've seen stringent testing proposed (for GM products) in Saudi Arabia. We've delayed that action for a year, but we could see other Gulf countries add similar restrictions on GM products.”
He says pending legislation in Mexico would require labeling all GM food products, including livestock that have been fed GM grains.
“It's impossible to identify animals that have been fed GM products,” he says.
“This is not just a U.S. concern,” Cook adds. “It's international; other nations are developing GM products and not just for agriculture use. The opportunities are tremendous.”
He says the main beneficiaries may be third world countries that desperately need improved nutrition.
“We must move toward a position where the benefits to consumers are as obvious as they are for producers. Labeling and segregation will be a factor, as will consumer education regarding benefits and safety.
“Sound science must prevail over emotion,” he says.
Jerry Slocum, International Marketing chair, United Soybean Board, says currently producers may find incentives for non-GM products that can be “identity-preserved in the marketplace. That will not always be the case,” he says. “Biotechnology will show its benefits.”
Slocum says educational efforts from ASA are bearing fruit.
“We've been working on educational efforts in Europe since 1995,” he says. “We've also worked with Japan, Korea, the Middle East and Mexico. We try to protect market access to all U.S. soybeans.”
He says the ASA/USB pits sound science against GM opponents' pitch to emotions. “We point out the environmental and safety benefits,” he says.
Slocum sees acceptance in Europe as more of a trade issue than a health or environmental one.
“Soymeal trades in an extremely price-sensitive environment,” he says. “And sales are improving in Europe. They say they don't want biotech, but they are buying more and more.”
He says Argentina has increased production of genetically modified soybeans significantly over the past few years. As much as 90 percent of Argentina's soybean crop will be Roundup Ready, and most will be exported.
“Our education efforts have succeed-Bioteched,” Slocum says. “All Roundup Ready varieties have been approved by all major importers. The United States will export soybeans to every major importer in Europe this year.
It's an ongoing process. “We have to identify what customers want and need. Those are not always the same.
“We also have to collaborate, as an industry, to produce what customers want and need. We have to deliver products in the form customers want them. And we have to assure customers of food safety.”
Biotechnology and food safety, Slocum says, “are not synonymous. We have to teach the difference; we have to become more customer focused.”