By Bobby Frederick, Director of Legislative Affairs and Public Policy
Nearly 1,000 attendees packed the Iowa Events Center in Des Moines on July 8-11 to hear company presentations and listen to TED-style talks from scientists, academics, growers, livestock producers, grain handlers, and government officials, during the Biotechnology Innovation Organization’s (BIO) World Congress on Industrial Biotechnology.
Enthusiasm surrounding gene editing was a major focus of the conference, but so were the concepts of transparency and building trust with consumers, which are critical if this new technology is to succeed. Through its World Congress, BIO created a space for divergent viewpoints to dialogue about these important issues and raise some tough questions.
NGFA Director of Legislative Affairs and Public Policy Bobby Frederick attended the event with the goal of sharing the grain trade’s marketability concerns over differing regulatory approaches toward gene editing as well as the need for transparency in communicating which crops are developed through this technology. The following is a summary of some the breakout sessions Frederick attended that may be of interest to NGFA members.
“The Global Sustainable Innovations Market Dilemma”
Jim Stitzlein, chairman of the U.S. Grains Council and a former chairman of NGFA’s Biotechnology Committee during his career with CGB Enterprises, stressed the grain trade’s reliance on fungibility to efficiently trade around the world. The way other countries decide to regulate gene-edited crops is a real concern for grain handlers. He also said he’s concerned about consumer acceptance. From a grain-handler perspective, he said he is willing to take on more risk and give up the economies of scale of the fungible supply system by dealing with a smaller volume of specific identity-preserved grain if the consumer is willing to pay for it. In summary, he said, the marketplace will respond.
Recounting her role as the former chief agriculture negotiator for the United States Trade Representative, Ambassador Darci Vetter argued that more information is usually better when it comes to regulation. While acknowledging that it may not be possible to detect whether a given product is made via gene editing or traditional biotechnology, U.S. officials are going to have to demonstrate an awareness of products in their own marketplace, as well as have confidence in the safety of the food and feed supply when talking with foreign counterparts. Vetter also recommended that a collaborative relationship with government officials is critical whether it is required for introduction of these traits into the commercial marketplace or not.
Gene-Editing Roundtable: “How Do We Get This Right?”
Dr. Carmen Bain, associate professor at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa, stressed that developing trust in social institutions will help achieve consumer buy-in. Trust in organizations, such as food retailers, scientists and regulators, is key and ultimately comes down to the question of whether consumers trust these institutions to provide them with safe and beneficial products. Bain speculated that while proponents of gene-editing technology are likely to be successful in getting the regulatory framework they want, this would not equate to a “social license” to utilize the technology and it may even undermine it.
During the question-and-answer session, Frederick said NGFA wants to be a part of the process to help get gene-editing regulation done right because getting it wrong means U.S. agriculture may not be able to move or trade the grain products to other countries. Frederick noted the shift towards self-determination by the technology provider in determining whether a specific gene-edited trait warrants review, as recently proposed by USDA in revisions to its plant biotechnology regulation, known as “Part 340,” and mentioned the deep relationships, trust and dialogue that has been built between the grain trade and several technology providers that participate on NGFA’s Crop Technology Committee. NGFA is working with BIO and other stakeholders on submitting comments for the proposed rule due Aug. 5
“The Future of Food is…?”
USDA Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs Greg Ibach joined a panel on the future of food. Ibach referenced the current Part 340 proposed rule comment period which prompted the NGFA to ask, via question card, what the department’s plan was to avoid trade disruptions and preserve the marketability of U.S. grains in the absence of sufficient alignment worldwide on regulating gene editing.
Ibach responded that USDA is “very aware that that is a concern” which is why from a regulatory perspective, the Foreign Agricultural Service and U.S. Trade Representative have been communicating with major U.S. trading partners about “the direction we’re headed and why…and trying to get them to move with us.”
Ibach cited Japan as being receptive to the regulatory approach the United States is proposing. He said making the connection with consumers that this technology can help achieve benefits they value would help avoid trade disruptions.While the question card format of the BIO program did not allow for follow-up questions, the NGFA will continue to communicate to USDA that a lack of regulatory alignment will be perilous for grain handlers and potentially undermine the value of American agricultural products.
“Sustainability + Shared Values for our Future”
During a breakout session on sustainability and deciphering shared consumer values, David Fikes, vice president of communications and consumer affairs for the Food Marketing Institute, struck a cautionary note.
“In sustainability we are notorious in trying to find a quick fix to something that has been broken for a long time and to act aggressively and assertively and in so doing, not collaborating sufficiently in hearing what everybody’s issues are so that we create a whole host of other issues,” he said.
Fikes also shared market research conducted by FMI regarding consumers’ perceptions of food. For example, 82 percent of consumers indicated they actively look at food labels for at least one label claim. When asked by NGFA what FMI’s research reveals about consumers’ views on gene editing and whether they would want to know if their food contains ingredients derived from gene editing, Fikes told the audience that FMI is conducting research on this very topic and will have more results in the next month. Fikes believes the easiest path to consumer acceptance of technology is to demonstrate clear consumer benefits. He said food retailers serve as the bridge between manufacturers and consumers.