Biotech acceptance will come in baby steps

05/10/2013 09:53:00 AM
Tom Karst

Tom Karst, National EditorTom Karst, National Editor"True or False: Genetically modified fruits and vegetables will be commonplace in 10 years in the U.S. fresh produce market.”

I asked that question recently in an online industry forum and the voting was very close, with 24 (55%) saying “true” and 19 (45%) saying “false.”

That voting has to be discouraging for proponents of biotech fruits and vegetables.

Even allowing for 10 years — another decade of progress in the laboratory and in the fields — almost half don’t think biotech fruits and vegetables can break through.

There is a great back and forth discussion in the Fresh Produce Industry Discussion Group, with 46 comments and counting so far.

In response to a barb about Monsanto in one comment, another post said:

“Monsanto again? Seems like every GMO topic eventually starts circling around that company. To address the original question, I will take a guess and say that I think that GMO foods will be commonplace — even more common than they are now.

“However, a lot depends on how much fear, uncertainty and doubt the people who are opposed to GMO foods will push out. I’m not a big fan of FUD tactics or conspiracy theories. They are, however, frequently effective. I rather prefer to take a rational/skeptical stance and say to people on both sides of this issue that they need to prove their claims.”

Just what is the answer to win the approval of industry leaders and the public?

Will it be a single “wow” moment, when the public goes all in on biotech because of some breathtaking health benefit?

There will be “wow” moments in the future, no doubt. We can expect biotech fruits and vegetables may some day offer consumers unusual tastes, colors and combinations of antioxidants and nutrients. Still more may boast disease-fighting characteristics that are absolutely vital to growers of a given commodity.

Those issues won’t matter much. They haven’t mattered much in the past, at least.

In 1994, Iowa State University published a perspective on biotech fruits and vegetables, and the tone of the article was the quickening pace of biotech selections for vegetable growers.

Called “The Vegetable Revolution,” the piece described the effort at that time to bring biotech vegetables to the public.

From that publication:

“There is stiff competition among companies to bring genetically engineered fruits and vegetables to market. One government official estimates that there are almost 300 projects under way to develop genetically engineered plants.”

As we know, the flurry of optimism in the early 1990s was misplaced. What happened to the Flavr Savr tomato anyway?

There are a few biotech fruits and vegetables in the market place today, but certainly not hundreds.

Consumer acceptance of biotech fruits and vegetables continues to be a question mark, with some consumer groups still trumpeting worries about “frankenfoods.” That note is getting tired.

There will be more and more attempts to bring biotech fruits and vegetables to market. The non-browning Arctic apple is waiting U.S. Department of Agriculture approval.

J.R. Simplot has recently petitioned the USDA for approval of a biotech potato that the company says is “genetically engineered for low acrylamide potential (acrylamide is a human neurotoxicant and potential carcinogen that may form in potatoes and other starchy foods under certain cooking conditions) and reduced black spot bruise.”

Del Monte has won USDA approval for a biotech variety of pineapple that the company says is still undergoing tests.

The signal that the market accepts genetically modified fruits and vegetables comes when John and Jane Q. Consumer say “ho-hum” when given news of another unveiling of another biotech fruit or vegetable.

I don’t think there will be any one event that will be the turning point in the market acceptance of biotech fruits and vegetables. But with one new biotech variety finding approval after another, retailers and consumers may not get so excited about the next.

Biotech will neither save nor destroy agriculture as we know it. In the end, it is the “no big deal” response that will finally signal a new norm.

It will be faith in U.S. regulatory bodies, such as it is, that will win the day for biotech crops. The organic community and a slice of consumers may never embrace genetically modified fruits and vegetables.

But with the pace about to pick up in regulatory approvals of biotech varieties, the baby steps toward full biotech acceptance will continue, with inevitable sidesteps around fear, uncertainty and doubt.

tkarst@thepacker.com

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