After years of indifference US consumers are worrying about genetically modified foods. Why now? Jane Hemminger explains what has prompted concern, and describes activities undertaken by the seed industry to educate the public and restore confidence.

Genetically modified organisms - from a "don't know it, don't care about it" sentiment with Americans to "don't puat it my food" in warp speed. How did GMOs get so much press?

The key word is food. It's fine to talk about biotechnology from the standpoints of scientific discovery, medical advancements, and reduced use of pesticides but mention that it might be a part of a tortilla chip and hysteria erupts. It goes from buried to front-page news; why is food biotechnology such a hot button? Several reasons, according to Larry Beach, Coordinator of Feed Improvement for Pioneer Hy-brids.

First and simply it is our food supply - don't mess with it. The general public, being distanced from the process, does not always understand seed genetics and the breeding methods used to develop or improve crops - traditionally or transgenically. Nor is the general population always aware of the benefits of genetic modification. The benefits are often to the farmers - allowing them to grow more on less space, improve resistance to weather and disease, and to reduce or eliminate the use of herbicides and pesticides. This lack of understanding can create apprehension.

Secondly, there is a rise in America in the distrust of science, big corporations, and the government's control of what is being done. This may be influenced by Europeans' attitudes toward these issues - especially as they work to deal with the problems of BSE and foot and mouth disease.

A third reason for the hysteria may be from the sensational campaigns of environmental organisations. These groups, looking for a fundraising hot button, have jumped on biotechnology as the blight of the modern world. They create fear and spread accusations but "don't fund any research to prove their claims" says Beach.

Education paramount

Whatever the reason, the issue now is how does this public relations nightmare get fixed? Education, education, education. A survey, "Perceptions of Biotechnology and Biodiversity in the Americas," showed results that agree. The survey noted that more than 35% of responses were "Don't Know/No Opinion" to questions regarding GMOs, crop diversity, pesticides, and hormone use. The first application of this survey according to its authors should be education - stating a "great lack of accurate information" available to the public.

According to Beach and Angela Dansby, Director of Public Relations for the American Seed Trade Association (ASTA), several efforts are underway to help dispel both the fears and misinformation. One such effort is from biotech companies themselves. Seven companies joined together to form the Council for Biotechnology Information in April of last year. Their mission is to bring to light issues on both sides for a "comprehensive communication campaign" related to biotechnology. They promote the benefits - medical advances, food quality improvement, and environmental protection - through a website (www.whybiotech.com), television ads, literature and research funding.

Partial approval promoted confusion

The ASTA works internally, advocating the use of biotechnology within the seed trade industry. According to Dansby, one lesson learned from the StarLinkTM case is that from now on seeds will be approved by all agencies (EPA, FDA, etc,) for full commercial use only. Both Beach and Dansby point out that StarLinkTM has shown no threat to human consumption and although there has been no evidence of any problems with the product it was still only approved for use in animal feed. Its appearance in the food supply was accidental. By eliminating partial approval the general public may have a greater degree of acceptance. ASTA has also encouraged the adoption of a 1% standard of tolerance by the EU with regard to transgenics appearing in seed.

Dansby also points to the importance of third party objective opinions. Such support has come from organisations such as the American Dietetics Association and the American Medical Association. In a statement on biotechnology, the AMA says, "the risk of introducing an allergen into the food supply (from transgenics) is similar or less than that associated with conventional breeding methods.- The AMA encourages continued use, study and monitoring of biotechnology. Other efforts include funding of education for university level educators. 4-H has also developed curriculum to help explain biotechnology benefits to youngsters. [For visitors outside the states, 4-H is the youth education branch of the Cooperative Extension Service, a program of the United States Department of Agriculture.]

Labelling, although controversial, with accurate and appropriate language, may be a help to consumer trust.

Regaining confidence is tough - it will require unique standards of tolerance. Standards that include honesty in what work is being done in biotechnology, understandable research on what the purposes, benefits and drawbacks of any given development are, fact-based pro / con statements, and time for people to adjust to the warp speed changes taking place.

By Jane M. Hemminger, RD, LD, just-food.com correspondent