Seeking support, biotech food companies pledge transparency

Published online: Aug 13, 2013
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With pressure growing to label genetically modified foods, the developers of biotechnology crops are starting a campaign to gain support for their products by promising new openness.

The centerpiece of the effort is a Web site that is expected to go into operation on Monday to answer virtually any question posed by consumers about genetically engineered crops. The site, GMOAnswers.com, is also expected to include safety data about the crops similar to that submitted to regulatory agencies.

"We have not done a very good job communicating about G.M.O.'s," or genetically modified organisms, said Cathleen Enright, executive director of the Council for Biotechnology Information, which will run the site. "We want to get into the conversation."

The council's members include Monsanto and five other big crop biotechnology and agricultural chemical companies-Dow Chemical, DuPont, Syngenta, Bayer CropScience and BASF.

While there has been opposition to genetically engineered crops since they were introduced in the 1990s, the Internet has allowed critical voices to be heard more loudly. Hundreds of thousands of people in cities around the world marched in protest of Monsanto in May, an outpouring organized largely through social media.

In the United States, numerous states are considering legislation that would require foods made from genetically engineered corn, soybeans or other crops to be labeled. Connecticut recently enacted such legislation, and a similar bill in Maine is awaiting the governor's signature. In both bills, the labeling requirement would not take effect until several other states have enacted similar mandates.

Biotechnology industry executives say that such labels would scare consumers away from genetically engineered foods by implying that the foods are somehow different or less safe.

Most of the corn, soybeans, cotton, canola and sugar beets grown in the United States contain bacterial genes that make the crops resistant to an herbicide or to insects or to both. The Food and Drug Administration has said that genetic engineering per se does not make foods materially different in a manner that would require a label.

While Ms. Enright said the new Web site was not aimed specifically at opposing labeling, the industry was apparently hoping more transparency would ease concerns about the crops' safety that underlie some of the demand for labeling.

Ms. Enright, who is also executive vice president for food and agriculture at the Biotechnology Industry Organization, a trade group, said the site would answer virtually any question. The answers will be provided either by biotechnology company employees or by outside scientists, nutritionists, farmers or other experts.

The site is also expected to make public information, like studies on animals, that the companies have provided to regulators, information that until now has not been readily available in a single place.

"We have been accused of purposely hiding information," Ms. Enright said. "We haven't done that but now we will open the doors and provide information."

Ms. Enright said the crop biotechnology companies would also start offering tours of their laboratories to the public.

Whether the new effort will have any effect remains to be seen. Critics are likely to dismiss anything written by industry employees or others on the site as propaganda. Some are also likely to question the adequacy of the safety information provided, especially if it contains summaries of studies but not the raw laboratory data.

"I'm a bit skeptical, but we'll see what they put up there," Ronnie Cummins, director of the Organic Consumers Association, which promotes organic food and is opposed to genetically engineered food, said on Sunday. "Hopefully, they'll make it easier for independent researchers to do research on these crops if they're interested in being transparent."

Ms. Enright said one sign of the new openness was the use of the term G.M.O. in the Web site's name. The industry has shunned that term in favor of genetically engineered crops, which it views as more precise and less pejorative.

"We have to go where the conversation is taking place," she said. "At the state level and the federal level, folks are talking about G.M.O.'s. So we are, too."

Source: sugarjournal.com