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The Trait Debate

July 27, 2013
By: Rhonda Brooks, Farm Journal Seeds & Production Editor
Conventional corn garners a significant market premium for Indiana farmer Jake Frederick and requires different pest- and weed-control options than traited corn, but it supports his goal of growing more continuous corn.  

Biotech creates tension between farmers, consumers

Genetically modified (GM) seed is the cornerstone of modern crop production, boosting corn and soybean yields and making it possible to feed a rapidly multiplying global population, but clouds loom on the horizon.

While most farmers decide to raise GM or conventional crops by weighing the financial pluses and minuses of each option, dollars and cents are not the lens through which the general public views biotechnology.

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Beth Johnson, founder of Food Directions LLC, a government relations firm specializing in food policy, in Washington, D.C., says a significant portion of consumers are, at best, apprehensive about the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food. Many want to eliminate GMOs use altogether.

Johnson, who spoke on the topic of labeling legislation and its potential impact on the future use of genetic modifications during an AgriGold specialty products meeting in June, says that education is key.

"Most consumers don’t understand the science, they don’t understand agriculture; they just react," she says.

Johnson’s perspective is reinforced by data compiled by several national consumer surveys done by mainstream media, including "CBS News" and The Washington Post. Their surveys show that more than 90% of consumers want to see labeling laws enacted for food products containing GM traits.

The lack of consumer knowledge about modern-day farming and the benefits offered by biotechnology is a significant problem for the entire agricultural industry, says Jack Lehr, science director for The Heartland Institute, a public policy think tank based in Chicago.

"We are facing a high level of public ignorance, negativity, fear and lies related to agriculture that must be overcome," he says.

In the crosshairs. This year alone, 26 states have proposed legislation that would require food products made from GM crops to be labeled, Johnson reports. Two of those states, Maine and Connecticut, approved GM labeling bills earlier this summer. In both cases, though, the bills cannot be signed into law until a number of additional states, including surrounding ones, vote to adopt similar legislation.

"Food labeling is a terrible idea," Lehr contends. "That’s telling the public there’s a problem [with biotechnology] when there never ever has been a problem."

Most farmers side with Lehr, though some do not. A Farm Journal Pulse survey of 1,408 farmers in June shows that 65% do not want labeling laws, while 18% believe foods made from GM crops should be labeled. About 17% of farmer respondents say they are unsure.

The reason most frequently cited by farmers opposed to labeling is concern that consumers will use the information, once it’s detailed on product packaging, to avoid buying foods containing GMOs.

Johnson says that farmers’ concerns are justified. However, she believes the vast majority of consumers will continue to make food purchases based first and foremost on price. She anticipates it will remain the single largest factor influencing consumer buying decisions in the future.

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FEATURED IN: Farm Journal - Seed Guide 2013
RELATED TOPICS: Corn, Technology, Crops, Genetics, Seed

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