Expert panel tackles G.M.O. crops at IFT17

by Charlotte Atchley
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Expert panel tackles G.M.O. crops at IFT17
Don Cameron, vice-president of Terranova Ranch, explained the opportunities G.M.O.s offered farmers.
 

LAS VEGAS — Genetically modified crops continue to be a hot topic in the food industry and among consumers. Experts continued the conversation at the Institute of Food Technologists annual meeting and exposition, held June 25-28 in Las Vegas. G.M.O.s remain top-of-mind in the industry between Congress’ passage of a labeling mandate last year, consumers’ persistent skepticism and farmers’ need for hardier crops.

With this trifecta, attendees filled the IFTNEXT stage for the opportunity to interact with those on the front lines of this issue in the two-part panel “G.M.O.s…So what?” On June 27, Don Cameron, vice-president of Terranova Ranch, explained the opportunities G.M.O.s offered farmers while Clint Nesbitt, director of regulatory affairs, food and agriculture, Biotechnology Innovation Organization, walked attendees through the regulatory issues surrounding these crops.

Dr. Sekhar Boddupalli
Sekhar Boddupalli, Ph.D., senior vice-president, food sector, Intrexon

On June 28, Sekhar Boddupalli, Ph.D., senior vice-president, food sector, Intrexon, and Thomas Colquhoun, Ph.D., assistant professor of food science, University of Florida, elaborated on the benefits of G.M.O.s from a scientific perspective and how to address negative consumer perception.

The precise gene editing technology available today enables scientists to create crops that are disease- and pesticide-resistant. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, pests and disease contribute to 30% of food waste. Gene editing technology can reduce the amount of food lost. And then there is food waste due to undesirable characteristics, such as browning apples, which Specialty Fruits has solved by simply turning a gene in the apple off.

“Forty per cent of apples are wasted because of browning, and we can stop that by turning off that gene,” Dr. Boddupalli said. “It preserves the apple naturally without preservatives, so the first bite you take is of the apple, not the taste of preservatives on the skin.”

Dr. Thomas Colquhoun
Thomas Colquhoun, Ph.D., assistant professor of food science, University of Florida

Hardier crops are useful in improving yields, reducing food waste and solving consumer issues, but G.M.O.s also can address issues arising from climate change. These crops may be tailored to be more tolerant of drought and adaptable to climate change. Farmers using G.M.O. crops generally lower production costs, reduce water usage and reduce pollution.

“We’re more productive with less water and labor,” Mr. Cameron said. “When we talk about climate change we’re going to have to be adaptable. We have to be more sustainable and be careful with what we grow and how we grow it.”

With so many advantages, it may be surprising that consumers are still wary of G.M.O. crops and ingredients, but the skepticism and sometimes outright hostility remains. As Dr. Colquhoun showed, while 88% of scientists believe G.M.O.s to be safe for human consumption, only 37% of adults in the United States believe them to be safe. Dr. Colquhoun attributed this disconnect to a lack of effective communication on the part of the science community and the spreading of misinformation by a small group of consumers who are anti-G.M.O.s. Dr. Colquhoun argued that the food industry and science community need to stop engaging that sliver of consumers and start engaging the moveable middle.

G.M.O. field
With so many advantages, it can be surprising that consumers are still wary of G.M.O. crops and ingredients.
 

“Our audience isn’t the anti-G.M.O. or anti-vaxxer,” he said. “You’re not going to change their minds. Our audience is the consumer who doesn’t know what to believe and is curious.”

While the science community has tried to reach these consumers with facts and research, they have missed the boat by not appealing to their emotions, he said.

“Facts don’t matter until you establish trust,” he said. “Lead with the emotion, your priorities and ethics. Engage the curious, listen, empathize with them.”

It might be easy to jump toward the “feed the world” message, and while that message rings true, Dr. Colquhoun argued it’s too difficult for consumers to conceptualize. Start with issues that hit closer to home: their individual needs and those of their communities, whether that’s apples that don’t brown or drought-resistant corn that will keep their local farmers in business. Reaching out to consumers’ hearts and solving their problems may be the key to turning the tide in favor of G.M.O. ingredients.

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