Europe won't buy genetically modified grains, for now
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. Blindsided by objections to genetically modified grain commodities in Europe and Japan, the United States agriculture industry needs "to take some steps back" to listen to and understand the objections, said experts who spoke recently at Purdue University.
Panelists speaking to an audience of 400 farmers and alumni of Purdue's School of Agriculture agreed that agriculture is a very long way from a worldwide consensus on the technology.
"We've stumbled so badly in Europe that certainly that battle is lost for five to 10 years," said Ron Meeusen, senior vice president of research plant genetics and biotechnology at Dow AgroSciences. "It's going to take a tremendous amount of effort to come to some understanding."
Meeusen said that when his company introduced genetically modified crops in the United States, it held an ambitious series of public meetings to introduce the technology, and to hear and address concerns.
Afterwards, the U.S. debate quieted, he said. But Meeusen added that the success was enjoyed only here at home: "Our mistake was we thought the rest of the world was listening."
Fellow panelist Paul Thompson, a Purdue professor of philosophy and specialist in the ethics of biotechnology, agreed that the effort to gain acceptance of genetically modified foods in Europe is lost for at least five years. He said that objections there to the technology are partly due to the common European perception that the U.S. government and U.S. agriculture never considered Europe's concerns before using the technology and still aren't much interested in the European point of view.
Thompson pointed out that the U.S. advocacy of the technology has focused solely on the "safety" of genetically modified foods and the safety of the science that makes them possible. This advocacy, he said, has not addressed worldwide questions about the technology's potential effect, if any, on the ecology. It also has not conveyed any U.S. concern for foreign cultural mores that place high priorities on ecological preservation and view farming as an honored tradition that could perhaps be compromised by such new technology.
"We have done virtually nothing to show our respect, and that breeds mistrust," Thompson said. "We need to start thinking of a relationship in which we go that extra mile to prove that we are trustworthy."
Also influencing opinion in Europe, Thompson said, are scares such as the Chernobyl nuclear accident and mad cow disease that have fostered a general mistrust of science and of scientists who declare anything "safe."
The most potentially vehement domestic objections to genetically modified foods, Thompson said, are religious. He noted that even though people with such objections are in a very small minority, it could become a highly vocal minority. "We need to be having this religious and cultural discussion," he said. "Because as we don't, they are getting angrier and angrier."
Asked whether farmers should plant genetically modified Roundup Ready soybeans this spring, panel member John Ade, senior vice president of ADM Countrymark, said: "If you're planting non-GM there's not a problem." He added, however, that farmers should first investigate what processors are using and what their elevator will take and under what sort of identity-preservation rules.
"It looks to be almost 50-50 this year," he said, referring to the amount of genetically modified seed and conventional seed he has seen purchased for planting this spring.
Sources: Paul Thompson, (765) 494-4295, firstname.lastname@example.org
Ron Meeusen, (317) 337-4294, email@example.com
John Ade, (217) 424-4658
Writer: Amy Raley, (765) 494-6682, firstname.lastname@example.org
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; email@example.com