The rapid adoption of genetically engineered crops has coincided with a rapid expansion of organic food production in the United States, Europe and other parts of the world.”
So goes the introduction to a unique conference—“Achieving Coexistence of Biotech, Conventional and Organic Foods in the Marketplace”—to be held this October in Vancouver, B.C.
Is such a scenario realistic? Can producers capitalizing on the robust markets for organically grown foods—as well as other segregated, non-GMO crops—compete with, and even collaborate with, conventional producers of conventional livestock and commodity crops?
One of the co-chairs of the “coexistence 2.0” conference sounds optimistic.
Dr. Stuart Smythis a researchscientist affiliated with the University of Saskatchewan’s Department of Bioresource Policy, Business and Economics. The Canadian researcher’s focus has been on the intersection of regulation and liability as it relates to innovation, particularly in the area of agricultural biotechnology.
“The driver behind our first three conferences was the safety and testing parameters of organic and conventional foods,” Smyth said. “But two years ago, we began to explore how the marketplace can drive co-existence.”
Smyth pointed out that organic production, in livestock as well as produce and commodity crops, has been pursued in tandem with conventional and GM food production for more than 15 years in North America. “This isn’t something new,” he noted.
Moreover, to ensure that producers can meet the growing global demand for food—and satisfy the preferences of various consumer segments—industry, government and other stakeholder needto cope with puttingcomplementary market practices and regulatory policies in place, Smyth said.
But is that possible? To explore the still-novel notion of organic and conventional producers achieving the agricultural equivalent of détente, Dr. Smyth spoke with Contributing Editor Dan Murphy.
Q.First of all, how did this “Coexistence” conference come about?
Smyth: Well, the question that kept getting asked was, how do we deal with issues related to segregation of food products and commodities? How do we develop some sort of coexistence, so that we’re not shutting down borders and disrupting trade? That’s the focus of this year’s conference.
Q.Certainly in Europe and North America there is plenty of room in the marketplace for all kinds of labeling, be it organic or other specialty claims. Those segments can co-exist, because they’re marketed to different consumers. But is it possible to take that co-existence upstream, into production?
Smyth: I certainly believe that we’re close, but it requires a move away from this antagonistic attitude we find right now in agriculture, the “right to sue” anybody who has a potentially negative impact on your business. That’s beginning to happen. I know in California, there is a movement to develop what you could call a “production cooperative,” such that farmers and producers are talking among themselves about what they intend to grow—whether it’s conventional, transgenic or organic farming.
Q.Long term, there seems to be such demonization of biotechnology by activists and media members that even though it seems logical that organic farmers might benefit from transgenic technology, In fact, most organic producers use the “dangers” of GMOs as their marketing angle. Do you see any possibility of that evolving near term?
Smyth: A good question. I think even organic producers themselves would admit that part of the boost they’ve enjoyed in the marketplace these last 10 or 15 years has been because of concerns about GMOs. We don’t label [foods] as genetically engineered, and that’s worked to the organic food industry’s advantage. The consumer who wants to avoid GMOs buys organic, just to be sure. On the other hand, organic production is a passion, a belief among participants that organic farming is really the best possible way to produce food. Using biotechnology might be a logical consideration, but I think their fear of losing market share would prevent that.
Q.I would like to see the food industry voluntarily label products with some sort of statement that communicates not just acknowledging the use of genetic engineering, but describing the benefits for consumers. Is that a possibility?
Smyth: We’re moving in that direction, especially where a [manufacturer] could put quantified health claims on the label, such as eggs that now contain “enhanced” omega-3 oils, which can be accomplished with genetic engineering. That would be a positive direction to go to “sell” biotechnology to the consumer.
Q.I guess that would still engender a lot of opposition.
Smyth: Yes. The challenge is to separate the science from the politics of biotech. Right now, the two sides [organic and biotech] are like two different religions. All they know how to do is repeat, “I’m right, and you’re wrong.” At the end of the day, if both industry and government can make decisions regarding biotechnology—whether it’s applications or labeling—on the basis of what the science says, not what the politicians say, then we may see some real progress moving ahead with food production that incorporates all types of systems.
›› For information on the “Coexistence 2.0” conference, log onto http://gmcc-11.com/
Dan Murphy is a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator