Comments given in Brussels on Consumer Acceptance of Genetically Modified Organisms 1989-1992

By Roger Blobaum
Notes used in presentation at Brussels workshop. Exact date unknown. 1989-1992

My remarks will focus on the area of consumer acceptance, a serious problem for those promoting biotechnology.

Biotechnology is being considered in the United States in a climate where technology itself is being widely questioned. This is especially true in the food and agriculture area.

Small farm advocates are often blamed for throwing roadblocks in the path of biotechnology progress.  It is significant that a series of surveys by Iowa State University of farmer opinion shows increasing questioning of technological advances in agriculture.  Much of this questioning focuses on the use of chemicals.  It is important to make the point that it not only is environmentalists, consumers, and others who are highly organized that have serious reservations.  Iowa’s farmers are early adopters, conservative, well educated, and highly conventional.  It would be difficult to make the case that they are not well educated in farm science.  Yet they express serious reservations.

The climate for consideration of biotechnology is one of skepticism in the general public for somewhat different reasons. There is widespread uneasiness about biotechnology and other technologies used in agriculture and a general lack of confidence in the ability of responsible federal agencies to guarantee food safety.  The response is support on the part of industry for public relations campaigns and packaged information to try to turn public opinion around. Serious gaps in testing and monitor particularly in regard to pesticide residues, are fully document Yet we see repeated calls on federal agencies to speak with one voice in trying to convince the public that no problems exist.

The general attitude about food safety creates an atmosphere of distrust of food and agriculture technology and makes the public open to suggestions that biotechnology should be approach with extreme caution.

This workshop should make a strong statement about the need to restore public confidence in the regulatory process related to these technologies. That means making information available long before decisions are made and involving consumer, environmental, and other interests in the process in a meaningful way. We do not want hearings and other types of public participation posturing.  We want real participation. And we know the difference.

Public participation is often allowed only on the fringe. Organizations seem to have clout only when they have media access or, as our environmental colleagues have demonstrated so often, are willing to haul agencies into court to make sure all the facts come out.

This workshop should make a statement about the legitimacy of timely involvement of public interest organizations in the process.  It is not a question of whether we should be allowed in or under what circumstances.  It is our right to be involved And, as one of my colleagues pointed out earlier, the process is enriched and improved by meaningful public participation.

A leading concern in the United States is the impact of biotechnology applications on the structure of agriculture and on the sustainability of the food and agriculture system. Most of these technologies, and those in animal agriculture in particular, are perceived as being ways to further industrialize agriculture, to move toward greater economic concentration and adoption of monocultural practices, and to greater reliance on animal drugs and other purchased inputs.

Of even greater concern to consumers and others is the perception that biotechnology applications like herbicide resistant crops will make it even more difficult for agriculture to move away from heavy reliance on chemicals.  They tend to lock in the chemical approach.

Developments of this kind are seen as a setback for important shifts to low-input methods and, to a lesser extent, to organic methods. So those who have an interest in sustainable agriculture, as all the large consumer groups in the United States do, see certain biotechnology applications as potential barriers to adoption of methods that would enhance food safety and environmental quality.

It is important then, I think, to include an option of the Fourth Hurdle as a test for biotechnology applications. The social, ethical, legal, economic, and environmental considerations must be considered.  I would urge that this be a conclusion of this workshop.

The response of U.S. representatives to the remarks of Dr. Hess, who incidentally is one of the highly regarded people at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, reflected the growing public discontent with U.S. agricultural policy.  It deals with a basic national debate over whether agricultural policy should continue to be based on the premise that nature should, or can be dominated by technology or whether methods that work with nature and are environmentally benign should be supported.

One of our European colleagues commented after the morning session that it appeared a civil war was breaking out in American agriculture. I can assure you that we are seeing more than ambush or skirmish.  The Union troops of Secretary Yeutter come to Brussels and try to present a united front. The fact is that it is not united. The challenge to chemical and other high agricultural technology is broad based and growing and, as suggested earlier, is supported by such prestigious groups as the National Academy of Sciences.  Those of us who are often lumped into the rebel group are gaining.  That is not necessarily good news for biotechnology.

This workshop should acknowledge that the sustainable agriculture debate is now worldwide and that conventional agricultural technology is being seriously challenged.  This has serious implications where agricultural practices are concerned. The test of agricultural attainability should be applied to all biotechnology applications.  Some, like nitrogen fixation for cereal crops, would pass with flying colors.  Others, as noted previously, would fail.

The secrecy, that cloaks FDA decision-making and the language of science also make public understanding more difficult.  They also lead to perceptions that industry and the regulatory agencies have something to hide and that only the favorable information gets out.  This workshop should conclude that confidential information should be withheld only with public notice, that a general description of the information withheld be made available, and that the reason for withholding the information should be made public. This would be a big step toward restoring public confidence in the process.

Finally, I want to make a suggestion about the need for the kind of technology assessment the public can trust.  I am skeptical of the royal commission type approach mentioned here. We see these commissions as ways to delay political decisions or for an agency to reshape the debate through a well promoted, and possibly badly distorted, report.  I would suggest the Office of Technology Assessment as a model that remains credible and reliable to the public after assessing some of the most controversial technologies.

It has a highly professional staff, retains recognized experts as consultants, has panel members representing the scientific community, industry, and public interest groups, and has an even larger contingent of formal reviewers. All aspects, including social, economic, ethical, and environmental, are considered.  Output is peer-reviewed reports with options for those elected to make the decisions.

There are many steps that could be taken to help restore public confidence and greatly improve the quality of public debate over biotechnology. This workshop has helped bring them out on the table. We urge those in a position to open up and improve the process to begin making the important changes needed.


R. Blobaum Brussels. Comments on consumer acceptance of genetically modified organisms.1989-1992

From 1989 to 1992, Mr. Roger Blobabum was the national director of Americans for Safe Food, a project of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (a 230,000-member health and nutrition advocacy organization.) His work included organizing annual national organic/sustainable agricultural conferences in Washington, organic and sustainable agricultural initiatives in 12 states, and helping shape the 1990 Organic Foods Production Act and push it thorough Congress.