Biotechnology Spurs Talk At Food Dialogues

Is a gene a gene? Panelists offer their takes on food supply, food safety and what biotechnology has to do with it.

Published on: Nov 15, 2012

In the final panel for the day, U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance seemingly saved the best – or certainly the most inflamed – topic for last. The third panel held at The Food Dialogues in New York City covered "Your Toughest Questions Answered on Biotechnology and Your Food."

Moderated by Ali Velshi, CNN chief business correspondent, panelists included Dr. Bob Goldberg, plant molecular biologist at UCLA; Dr. Julie Howard, chief scientist at USAID; Gregory Jaffe, directof of biotechnology, Center for the Science in the Public Interest; Fred Kirschenmann, Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University; Cheryl Rogowski, New York organic farmer; Jerry Slocum, Mississippi soybean farmer.

Biotechnology Spurs Talk At Food Dialogues
Biotechnology Spurs Talk At Food Dialogues

Discussion ranged widely, from organic farmer Cheryl Rogowski who shared how customers come to her because they want to know the farmer who grows their food and because they want assurance of an organic food supply, to molecular biologist Bob Goldberg, who maintains our food supply has never been safer because of biotechnology.

"There's absolutely no safety problem with these crops. In fact, they are some of the safest ever, given the amount of testing that's been done," Goldberg said.

And yet Rogowski maintained, customers seek her out for non-GM products. "I had two people come in this summer and want a guarantee that it was not GM sweet corn. And I could tell them, I don't knowingly have any GM on my farm."

Kirschenmann was admittedly not against biotechnology (though he preferred the term "transgenic" because "we have transcended normal genetics.") but he wants everyone to consider other possibilities and answers within the production system. He'd also like to see a lot more research.

~~~PAGE_BREAK_HERE~~~"We don't know what we don't know. We have to test all the negatives, and like tobacco, that may take 30 or 40 years," Kirschenmann said.

And yet everyone acknowledged, hostility toward biotech clearly exists, even in the incongruous "non-GMO" label. "To be honest, this has been one of the most depressing times of my career," Goldberg said. "You have to separate fact and emotion. People think some large company is going to take over the food system. When you separate science from globalization and anti-corporate issues, the science is perfectly safe. We live in the most exciting time for agriculture, by far. We have a really large supply of food. I think a lot of it [hostility] is coming from the organic industry, and from corporate organic like Whole Foods, which has just been pounding people with anti-GM. We need to have conversations."

Goldberg blames corporate organic for the hostility. "I think it's from a 15-year propaganda campaign mis-educating the public and demonizing the technology. It's been extremely successful. To say, 'we don't know whether these are safe or not but we don't put them in our stores, so you don't have to worry about it' – that's been a very well received message."

Jaffe allowed the more research may be warranted, but biotechnology needs a fair shake. "I think Fred [Kirschenmann] makes valid points. There are some foods we eat that are dangerous to some people, but we still eat them. All kinds of agricultural practices are harmful, and we have to work on that. But there's a double standard for genetically modified – they want to treat it differently than other kinds of research – and stop it from moving forward."

Essentially, much of the disagreement boils down to people's approach to science. Says Goldberg, "There's not one thing in the store that's not been engineered at some point in history. When I look at it as someone who works with genes, a gene is a gene is a gene."