Biotech Foods

Agrobiotechnology image of apple with slice cut out. Inside of the apple looks like an orange

Biotechnology is often associated with promise… promise to feed the world, promise to reduce environmental harm, promise to expand agricultural markets and production possibilities, promise to create products that consumers want.

Farmers in the United States seem to be sold on these promises. Farmers have rapidly adopted them because of their ability to survive herbicides and/or pests. Adoption rates of biotech commodities that are used for nonfood purposes—animal feed and textiles, for example—have also increased rapidly.

Seed development, chemical, and pharmaceutical firms seem to be sold, too. Anticipating significant returns from both agricultural and pharmaceutical biotechnology, these firms acquired small biotech start-up firms (and their biotech patents) in the 1990s and transformed themselves into large "life science" companies. While some pharmaceutical firms have since divested their agricultural holdings after failing to realize adequate returns on their investments, large agricultural biotechnology companies—like Monsanto—have maintained agribiotech research and development programs, partly because of expected greater returns on second- and third-generation biotechnology.

I am hoping my concerns have germinated from agro-ignorance, because one thing I have learned in over 10 years of studying the future, is that Nature will need help feeding a growing population.


Are American consumers sold?

Unlike their European counterparts, American consumers have, so far, not been vocal about their opinions on biotech food, though they have been eating them. Biotech grains, in the form of cornmeal, oils, and sugars, are used as ingredients in many foods that Americans consume, such as corn chips. Because these foods are deemed substantially equivalent to their nonbiotech counterparts, they are not labeled as "biotech." As such, consumers are largely unaware they are eating products derived from biotechnology. But that may change when the new generation of products in the pipeline actually hits grocery stores. These new products may be substantially different from their nonbiotech counterparts or, in some cases, completely new. When consumers are made aware that these products are biotech, how will they react? As the largest market for U.S. producers, American consumers will render the ultimate verdict on the future of agricultural biotechnology in the United States.

Consumer attitudes can be influenced by the regulatory environment, which includes labeling policies. In the United States, biotech foods that are substantially equivalent to their conventional counterparts in terms of composition, nutritional attributes, allergens, and other characteristics do not need to be labeled as "biotech." So far, none of the biotech foods in the U.S. market has required labeling.

In other parts of the world—including the European Union and Japan—labeling of foods with biotech content is mandatory, even without scientific evidence of specific health risks to consumers. Mandatory labeling policies in foreign markets, while intended to satisfy consumers' "right to know," may tend to accentuate concerns about product safety. U.S. policies, in contrast, have helped to foster the passive acceptance of biotech products (for example, soybean oil derived from biotech soybeans) by domestic consumers and food manufacturers. Will U.S. Consumers Accept New Biotech Foods?

It's hard to say. We know consumers want and expect variety. Agricultural biotechnology can be a tremendous source of variety—both in terms of choices of production techniques for farmers in developed and developing countries and in terms of new and different products for consumers. Further, biotechnology may provide food quality enhancements not previously available (nonallergenistic peanuts or other foods, for example) that consumers may greatly desire.

We also know that consumers are influenced by various types and sources of information and make choices based on the information they receive, as well as on their own needs and preferences. Consumers who are anxious about biotechnology but who also want previously unavailable food characteristics will face new tradeoffs among food choices.



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