Biotechnology, the Media, and Public Policy

For more than two decades, scientists have been working to develop a range of animal and agricultural products, foods, industrials, and pharmaceuticals made with the help of genetic modification. As has historically been the case with the introduction of new scientific methods, gene manipulation has stirred intense and often contentious debate by the public and within academia and the government. This sometimes-confrontational tone has shaped public attitudes and government polices toward bioengineering around the world and has limited the utilization of this new technology. The history, tactics, and evolution of public attitudes associated with this new science presents an important case study that could provide a blueprint for future technology introductions and their commercialization.

To date, no policy group has extensively explored the formation of public opinion around commercial exploitation of biotechnology. This AEI conference will focus on the origins of this debate; how the dialogue has shaped public policy around the world; how it impacts the commercial realities of companies engaged in developing products; how it might alter the future course of scientific research; and what strategies might be utilized to encourage less rancorous and more constructive discussion over the costs and benefits of genetic manipulation, with the hope of developing more rational public policy.

History and Context of the Public Opinion Battlefield over GMOs

The benefits of GMOs can be divided into two broad categories. One involves the experimentation and commercial development of genetic modification techniques to develop crops and pharmaceuticals in developed countries, largely the United States. Emphasis has focused on the superior characteristics of GMOs to make them a more attractive purchase for farmers relative to traditional crops/seeds. The second category is the use of GMOs to combat hunger by increasing yields, making crops more pest and drought resistant, and even enhancing the crops’ nutritional values.

Public perceptions about bioengineering have dogged the research and commercialization strategies of the biotech industry since the first commercial products were introduced a decade ago. The often-politicized process has prompted firms to formulate what is known as Freedom to Operate strategies. In response, an international advocacy industry coalesced seeking to limit this Freedom to Operate in the name of social, environmental and health responsibility. This coalition includes traditional activists (for example, Public Interest Research Groups), self-defined environmentalists, religious groups, social investment organizations, and umbrella anti-biotech groups (for example, GE Food Alert Coalition). They seek to apply public relations and by proxy financial pressures to influence the debate and public policy; many are determined to radically scale back or even kill the introduction of bioengineered products and processes. Another major player is the media, however ideologically fractured, which has acted as a filter and sometimes as advocate for different interest group perspectives.

Biotechnology and genetic engineering are complicated issues, and most people do not have the scientific background to comprehend the complex of issues associated with such a rapidly progressing technology. The current controversy has historically hinged on whether the process of producing the products or the products themselves might result in unacceptable environmental or health hazards. Critics and defenders cannot even agree whether this new technology is an evolutionary or revolutionary technique. Farmers and plant breeders have relied for centuries on crossbreeding, hybridization, and other forms of genetic modification to improve the yield, quality, and disease resistance of crops. Though the use of genetic engineering, crops can be made resistant to pests, drought, and even herbicides to increase their yields. Defective genes in plants (and even humans) could be repaired to ameliorate or eliminate the adverse effects of a disease. Today, virtually every plant grown commercially for food or fiber is a product of crossbreeding, hybridization, or both. Many of the same techniques have been used in modifying animal breeds and developing new pharmaceuticals.

Using traditional breeding methods, thousands of genes of often-unknown function are moved into crops. The new tools of biotechnology, advocates claim, allow breeders to more precisely select single genes that produce desired traits and move them from one plant or animal to another. Using a combination of conventional breeding techniques and biotechnology tools, researchers have been able to supercharge an organisms natural defenses using genetic material already in place or by introducing genes from other plants or animals. Much of this technology is not yet ready for regulatory review or commercial use.

The process for taking the research from an early promising stage to commercial reality is fraught with challenges in part because of harsh public perceptions that shadow the biotech industry. Critics claim that while the process of genetic modification might appear to be more precise than conventional breeding techniques, it is dangerous because of what they say is a limited understanding of potential hidden problems from allergens or antibiotic resistance. They often invoke the so-called Precautionary Principle to sow doubt about the long-range impact of this technology. They assert that genetic modification could result in the release of Trojan-horse genes or rogue animals or plants that would not be subjected to the built-in checks and balances in nature and thus might cause environmental havoc. They argue that it is therefore better to halt all commercial uses of biotechnology or proceed very slowly under restrictive regulation. They claim to be acting on behalf of innocent but unaware consumers and the natural environment. Critics have succeeded in politicizing this potential scenario by introducing into common usage the charged appellation of "pollution" to describe the mixture of minute amounts of genetically modified seed or crops with conventional supplies.

Industry supporters, most geneticists, and many government regulators generally believe the science is relatively benign, at least as safe as traditional breeding techniques with manageable potential unknown risks. They claim that the invocation of the Precautionary Principle fans hysteria because it feeds on the public’s inability to balance the benefits of this new technology against scientific risk. Interestingly the Precautionary Principle is just the reverse of the World Trade Organization (WTO) rule that forbids any nation from banning imports unless it can be proved to a "scientific certainty" that products are unsafe.

The fight over whether products made using bioengineering should be labeled is a central battleground. Activists, including social investment groups who have ready access to the media, endorse labeling initiatives, claiming it is the moderate, pro-consumer position. After all, they say, what could be more reasonable than providing the public with more information. Many government regulators and the biotech industry regard this position as disingenuous. They claim that rather than increasing consumer choice options, labeling would permanently and negatively brand GMOs with what amounts to a "skull and crossbones," essentially removing them from the marketplace. Some activists who are philosophically opposed to bioengineered animals and crops concur in this assessment of the tactical impact of GMO labels.

Regional Differences in Public Attitudes about GMOs

The debate over biotechnology has played out very differently in different parts of the world. Consumers in the United States have been somewhat indifferent to the introduction of GM technology and foods, particularly compared to Europeans. As a result, the federal government has been cautious about introducing what the industry sees as intrusive government oversight. In May 1992, the Food and Drug Administration issued a policy statement: "The agency is not aware of any information showing that foods derived by these new methods differ from other foods in any meaningful or uniform way." The government claims that no substantive scientific evidence has been presented to alter that policy.

In contrast the European regulatory machinery is stuck. The European Union has been observing an unofficial moratorium on new bioengineered seeds and food for four years. EU officials say they will not lift the embargo until they receive assurances that the United States won’t resist strict European Union labeling rules. In February 2001, the EU Parliament passed measures that established rules governing the testing, planting, and sale of GMO crops and food for humans and animals, and the testing and sale of bio-pharmaceuticals. Under the rules, companies have to apply for licenses that will last ten years and to pass approval processes. All genetically altered products will be tracked in a central database that will also mark the locations of all crops.

Japan, Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and numerous other countries require or have announced plans to require labeling of GMO-derived foods. A number of developing countries also support more restrictions on GM foods, as they fear that they could lose access to primary export markets in Europe if they should move to GMO crops and anger EU countries. There is also a general unease in segments of the developing world that large corporations will develop too much power and control over seed technologies.

European and Asian consumers appear to be more aware, but not necessarily more informed, about biotechnology than consumers in the United States, even though there are more genetically modified food products available in the United States. Why are European and some Asian countries more pessimistic about GMOs than the United States? Culture, traditions, trust in government regulators, and history (recent European food scares of made cow disease and dioxin-contaminated feed have exacerbated this divide) and other factors play an important role. There are also key differences in the "information stream" in different regions of the world, which dramatically impact perceptions. In Europe in particular, activist groups have a greater impact on public opinions on this issue. European activist groups, most notably Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, have inflamed consumer fears of GM foods, often by staging media events. Substantial publicity was generated when Paul McCartney and Prince Charles joined the questioning of GMOs. The collective protests dubbed GM foods as "Frankenfoods," a pejorative branding that has stuck in Europe. These actions have helped reinforce the skepticism and uneasiness about genetic engineering by European consumers.

The Future: Risk/Reward and Risk/Risk

To date, GM foods have been largely perceived as potential risks rather than products (or processes) that have led to actual injuries and damages. Activist groups have been successful, particularly in Europe, in exploiting fear of the future and a general wariness about science and technology. Considering that there are many biotech innovations on the horizon, it is critical to consider: What can be done to bring more reason to the debate?

What appears to be lacking in the public discussion in Europe and increasingly in the United States is more coherent discussion about the current and potential benefits that these technologies can provide, which would give the public a better understanding of the issues involved. It has frequently been suggested that had advocates more clearly defined the benefits of GM foods and crops to consumers, particularly in developed countries, they might have been more successful. But with the benefits to date going mostly to GMO firms and farmers, when perceived risks are hyped to customers, there is little resistance to switch to non-GM foods.

The unfulfilled potential of GMOs might well rest on how the technology comes to be perceived by the greater world community. While biotechnology is not a silver bullet, it may provide key tools to address the problem of food supplies, especially in countries with an increasing population. In developing countries, if the choice were defined as between GM crops and starvation, the benefits would clearly exceed perceived risks. China, for example, with the largest population in the world, 13 million people to feed, is clearly committed to the use of GMO technology in its agricultural production programs. GMO crops could help alleviate the growing hunger problems in Africa. GM drugs or genetic modification of human genes that eliminates life threatening/debilitating diseases or reduces their consequences clearly have benefits that in most cases would exceed risks.

Clearly biotech risks must be managed from a global perspective. Biotechnology should be evaluated not only through assessing its risks and benefits, but also through a risk/risk analysis. That is, the potential risks of these technologies should be weighed against the risks of abandoning or restricting them, which may lead, for example, to the delaying of the development of crucial medical treatment that could save and improve millions of lives.

Ideological crosswinds continue to buffet the biotechnology industry and retard the fulfillment of the promise of biotech. This fractious dialogue has had a dramatic impact on how GM products and processes are regulated across borders and therefore on business, communication, and research strategies. It has spawned a plethora of domestic and international regulatory bodies, global protests, litigation, Internet campaigns, and most recently an international humanitarian crisis over whether people in famine stricken countries in Africa will starve if they are not given access to crops grown using biotechnology. It is also a major issue in international food safety and trade negotiations and threatens to become a major impediment for freer trade across the Atlantic.

The benefits and potential problems associated with bioengineering in agriculture and pharmaceuticals have been discussed in numerous forums. This conference will not rehash this irresolvable ideological debate. Rather, it is designed to examine how and why the current confrontational tone has developed and what strategies may be employed so this new technology can be appropriately, efficaciously and safely utilized. It will examine a range of issues related to attitude formation and bioengineering.

The conference will draw upon the expertise of a range of professionals at the access point where science meets the media: public opinion and public relations specialists, representatives from impacted industries, scientists, responsible NGOs, academicians, government policymakers, and journalists. Key participants and scholars will be asked to contribute original papers. Discussants, including journalists, will offer critiques and commentaries that will be included in the final scholarly volume.

Conference Panels and Participants

8:30 a.m.

Continental Breakfast


Welcome: Jon Entine of AEI outlines the goals of the conference


Opening Address: Lester Crawford (FDA deputy commissioner; the former director of the Center for Food and Nutrition Policy at Virginia Tech has been involved in every aspect of the public debate over GMOs, including the contentious issues of labeling and the new frontier of biopharming):


Panel I: Biodiplomacy and Public Perception

Why is the debate over biotechnology playing out so differently in different parts of the world? What do these regional attitudinal differences portend for the future of biotechnology?

Moderator/Discussant: Tim Friend, USA Today science writer

Javier Verastegui (executive secretary of CamBio Tec, a Canadian initiative undertaken by the International Development Research Council; past Director of technology in the Institute of Industrial Technological Investigation (Peru) and of the Peruvian for Society Scientific & Technological Management):

Vivian Moses (visiting professor of biotechnology, King’s College London; director of the Centre for Genetic Anthropology at University College London; chairman of CropGen, an independent organization that makes the case for biotechnology; coordinator of EBE (Educating the European Public for Biotechnology); editor of Biotechnology: The Science and the Business):

C. S. Prakash (professor of plant molecular genetics and director of the Center for Plant Biotechnology Research at Tuskegee University; member of the USDAs Agricultural Biotechnology Advisory Committee and the Advisory Committee for the Department of Biotechnology of the Government of India; director of AgBioWorld Foundation, the largest and most influential academic discussion group on biotechnology, interacting with over 3,000 researchers and academics daily on emerging public attitude issues): Caught Between the War of Giants: How Can Developing Countries Benefit from AgBiotech?

Robert Paarlberg (professor of political science, Wellesley College (MA); associate of the Harvard Center for International Affairs; consultant with the International Food Policy Research Institute, U.S. Agency for International Development, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the U.S. Department of State; author of numerous books, including The Politics of Precaution: Genetically Modified Crops in Developing Countries and Governance and Food Security in an Age of Globalization): THE INTERNATIONAL POLICY STRUGGLE OVER GM CROPS
Noon Luncheon
12:20 Keynote: Allen Johnson: World Trade and the Future of GMOs
The government’s chief agricultural trade negotiator will discuss the ongoing EU moratorium on U.S. biotech crops and the political and media realities of WTO discussions about GE crops and food, especially in the light of the emerging African famine.
1:30 Panel II: Emerging Challenges for Commercializing Biotechnology
The biotech industry has had mixed success to date in responding to anti- bioengineering activists and conveying to the public real current and potential future benefits. Can the industry learn from past mistakes? Much will depend on how the industry responds to key emerging areas of controversy: famine in the developing world, the role of NGOs in framing the biotech controversy, so-called biopharming, and the web of international patent issues and international regulation.
Moderator/Discussant: Justin Gillis, Washington Post science, biotechnology, and business reporter
Martina Newell-McGloughlin (director of the UC Systemwide Biotechnology Research and Education Program. Before this position, she was director of the UC Systemwide Life Sciences Informatics Program and the UC Davis Biotechnology Program and has worked for the government and the private sector. She has published numerous papers, articles, and books on biotechnology focusing on disease resistance in plants, scale-up stability for industrial and pharmaceutical production in microbes, and microbiological mining. The UC Davis Academic Federation selected her to receive its 2001 James H. Meyer Distinguished Achievement Award.): Bio-Pharming: Opportunities And Challenges For Producers, Consumers And Regulators
Joseph McGonigle (vice president, Aqua Bounty Farms and former executive director of the Maine Aquaculture Association; part of the team producing and marketing one of the first transgenic animals, fish which incorporate genes from two different fish species): Transparency is not enough: The Aqua Bounty experience in the Commercialization of Transgenic Salmon
Rob Horsch (director of global technology transfer, vice president of product and technology cooperation, Monsanto; former general manager of Agracetus, a research and development company owned by Monsanto that specializes in genetically enhanced crops): Growing Partnerships in the gmo debate: Monsanto’S EXperience IN moving from message-based to relationship-based communications
Patrick Moore (ecologist and co-founder of Greenpeace in the early 1970s; founder of the environmental group Greenspirit, Vancouver, BC; critic of activists who use "pagan beliefs and junk science"; referred to as "the man environmental activists love to hate": Fighting Back: RESPONDING TO The Adverserial Tactics of Activists and NGOs
3:15 Panel III: GMOs and Communications Issues
What are the tactics utilized by activist groups and the biotech industry in getting out their messages? What can we expect as the next wave of biotech products and processes come on line? How can we improve the quality of dialogue, which might lead to more rational public policy?
Moderator/Discussant: Jon Entine, AEI
Thomas Hoban (professor in the Department of Sociology and the Department of Food Science at North Carolina State University. For the past decade, Mr. Hoban has worked with government agencies, farm groups, biotechnology companies, and others to help understand public perceptions of biotechnology. He is the director of the Center for Biotechnology in Global Society. He has been invited to give over 500 presentations and is regularly interviewed by the media. He recently completed a telephone survey of the food industry, as well as a mail survey of global government leaders on biotechnology.): Global Stakeholders’ Views on Biotechnology
Jay Byrne (president of v-Fluence Interactive Public Relations. Jay has 20 years of experience in public relations, campaign communications and government affairs. He has held senior communications positions at the White House, U.S. State Department, Monsanto Company and for the City of Boston. Jay has directed communications and media relations for various U.S. political campaigns, global activist campaign responses and other international public relations initiatives. His media relations and interactive campaigns have won numerous awards and recognitions.): The Tangled Web of Biotech and Corporate Activism: How the Internet and the new era of social responsibility have changed the rules of engagement
Carol Tucker Foreman (director, Consumer Federation of America’s Food Policy Institute; former assistant secretary of Agriculture for Food and Consumer Services; member of the EU/U.S. Consultative Forum on Biotechnology; member of the Agricultural Policy Advisory Committee for Trade; served on USDA Advisory Committee on Agricultural Biotechnology; oversaw development of the federal government’s first Dietary Guidelines for Americans): FOOD IS SPECIAL: PUBLIC TRUST IN RISK MANAGEMENT IS VITAL TO PUBLIC ACCEPTANCE OF BIOTECHNOLOGY
Doug Powell (associate professor of plant agriculture at the University of Guelph, Ontario and director of the Food Safety Network, which conducts farm-to-fork research, analysis, and extension to enhance the safety of the food supply.): WHERE'S THE TRUST? GMOs, Risk Assessment, and Communications Strategy
Tony Gilland (science and society director, British Institute of Ideas, London; author of Science-Can We Trust the Experts?, Nature’s Revenge?, Rethinking Risk and the Precautionary Principle; organizer of public dialogues on the biotech, including the 2003 "Genes and Society Festival" and the 2000 London Royal Institution’s "Interrogating the Precautionary Principle" conference): changing the GROWING "Risk Averse" Mentality in Western SOCIETY



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