Looks like someone's finally waking up . . .
FEATURE - U.S. food industry targets biotech education
-- July 6, 2000
CHICAGO - The U.S. food and agriculture industry is standing by biotechnology and renewing efforts to persuade consumers that to know high-tech foods is to love them.
Experts at an International Food and Agribusiness Management Association's conference in Chicago last week said the industry recognised that billions of dollars' worth of research into engineered foods means nothing without consumer acceptance. The comments by industry leaders follow a rising awareness in the United States of protests and questions about genetically modified crops, which have prompted consumer boycotts in Europe since last year and caused reduced plantings this year of some GM varieties such as corn and soybeans.
"Perhaps the greatest challenge we face lies not in the area of technology but in marketing," David Rowe of Dow AgroSciences, a unit of Dow Chemical Co., told a session on food technology. Agribusiness has spent only "trivial" amounts on marketing, Rowe said, compared to the massive dollars invested in technology.
This has cost companies in consumer mistrust of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and biotechnology, he said, adding that to make biotechnology investments pay off firms need to give more consideration to consumer needs and education.
"Difficult marketing solutions in the short term come from underfunding marketing in the last decade. The greatest challenge facing the agricultural industry lies in identifying needs that are worth the cost of the investment," Rowe said.
Consumer education has not been a top agribusiness priority in recent years, said well-known agriculture industry consultant Carole Brookins, the chairman of World Perspectives Inc.
"Until recently biotech companies and agriculture in general thought that any new technology would be accepted by consumers because it always had been in the past," Brookins said.
"They didn't realise the world had changed, and that there had been a great effort to discredit large corporations and also discredit food technology by various groups."
Now some of the major players in agricultural biotechnology have banded together to put forth their message.
Seven companies and the Biotechnology Industry Organisation in April formed the Council for Biotechnology Information, which has developed a $50 million, three-to five-year agenda for building public support for high-tech foods.
Ted McKinney, a Dow AgroSciences spokesman who has been working with the council, said it wants to highlight how biotechnology can cut pesticide use, help feed the world's growing population and make foods healthier.
LOSE THE TERM 'GMO'
Also, McKinney told the conference: "Let's lose the term GMOs." He suggested using "food biotechnology" or "agricultural biotechnology" instead.
Some at the conference blamed the public schools for failing to educate consumers about science.
William Spain, Del Monte Foods' chief corporate affairs officer, said consumers' increasing isolation from agriculture is something the industry will have to address. "There is more and more a limited personal experience with agriculture and food, which gets in the way of understanding a lot of the things that we're doing in the food business these days," he said.
The industry's focus on consumer education and marketing comes well after the widespread acceptance of biotechnology by farmers and grain processors.
In 1999, genetically modified seeds designed to produce their own insecticides or withstand powerful new herbicides comprised 57 percent of the U.S. soybean crop and 29 percent of the U.S. corn crop, the Department of Agriculture said.
E. Berry Summerour, an agricultural analyst with investment bankers Stephens Inc., said he expected consumer suspicion of GMOs to fade in the next few years as the industry markets more consumer-friendly products such as rice with higher vitamin A content or edible vaccines.
"It's going to take a lot more communication, and it's going to take some of these products to get to the market without fumbling," Summerour said. "But it (biotechnology) is going to be here, it's going to be a fact of life." .
Story by Julie Ingwersen
REUTERS NEWS SERVICE
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