A brilliant article about genetic engineering appeared a few weeks ago in The New York Times.


I say brilliant because, unlike that newspaper’s typical treatment of the subject, this article, by Amy Harmon not only detailed a problem—a virus that’s threatening the country’s citrus crops—where biotech may be the only answer, but outlined quite concisely the issues food producers and GE supporters must confront if the science is ever to deliver on its potential.


To summarize the crisis: A bacterial disease called citrus greening, which “sours oranges and leaves them half green [and] was already ravaging citrus crops across the world,” had attacked the multi-billion dollar Florida orange juice industry. According to the story, growers such as Ricke Kress, president of Southern Gardens Citrus, which owns 2.5 million orange trees and processes juice for category giants Tropicana and Florida’s Natural, had “chopped down hundreds of thousands of infected trees and sprayed an expanding array of pesticides on the winged insect that carries the [pathogen]. But the contagion could not be contained.”


Nor could a naturally immune stand of trees be located anywhere in the world. The only alternative was to attempt to develop a disease-resistant tree using genetic engineering. And as one might imagine, that created a backlash for Kress and other orange growers pursuing that path.


“The idea of eating plants and animals whose DNA has been manipulated in a laboratory . . . still spooks many people,” Harmon wrote. “Critics worry that such crops carry risks not yet detected, and distrust the big agrochemical companies that have produced the few in wide use.”


She’s right, only it’s not just distrust of the technology that’s in play. As much as any phobias about “Frankenfoods,” the source of the public’s distaste for biotech results from the perception that certain corporations are developing a stranglehold on food production.


The fear of corporate dominance of the food supply is understandable on one level. Nothing is more basic than food (and water) to human survival, after all, and a company or companies that might be able to bottleneck access to food ought to be the target of citizens’ concern.


Ironically, we don’t seem to apply the same sensitivity to other essential commodities, such as broadband or communications. As long as prices remain reasonable, we’re not bothered by our limited options for Internet access or cell phone service.


Food is different. We’ve had centuries of small-scale, localized seasonal food production and availability engrained in our culture and our collective DNA. Only in the last 50 or 60 years has advancing technology and corporate consolidation combined to create the specter of “Big Ag” dominating the availability of the most basic of staples we absolutely cannot do without.


(Even more ironically, though, nobody’s squawking much about the rampant consolidation within the food industry—including orange juice, as well as coffee, soda, meat, poultry, and just about every other edible commodity).


Twin tactics required


The question for producers of all food products is this: How can the backlash against perceived corporate control of food production—whether via GMOs or “traditional tactics,” such as market domination—be reversed? With respect to biotech, there are two—and only two—strategies that will have any impact.


One is to fund, promote and disseminate public-sector research to develop the nutritional and productivity-related potential of genetic engineering. Such advancements would remain part of the public domain, rather than a proprietary portfolio, and could do much to dampen perceptions that biotech is only applied to foster the profit motive.


Such an investment would also mitigate the message that Monsanto, et al, is trying to “take over food production” via control of the seed stock necessary to cultivate the world’s essential food crops.


Second, and even more urgent, is the need to launch at least a trial version of voluntary GE labeling. Unless and until some of the leading processors step up and put to rest the fears that eating foods made with GE ingredients—or even more absurd, eating meat from animal fed GE corn or soy—will cause unspecified “problems” for consumers, anti-biotech activists will continue to gain traction with their relentless fear-mongering.


Is it possible for a voluntary program to succeed? Look at nutritional labeling 25 years ago. Plenty of companies opposed it back then, using a similar rationale: Why cave in to activists who demonize the nutritional quality of foods products when there’s nothing wrong with them in the first place?


Then, some companies began listing nutritional components voluntarily, got lots of positive press, saw sales grow, not decline, and guess what? Although other in the industry ultimately had to be forced by law to provide nutritional labeling, safe to say that the end game proved to be a winner for food processors overall.


The longer that industry resists voluntary labeling of GE ingredients, the longer the odds become that a similar scenario could develop that would parallel the successful trajectory of nutritional labeling.


As the NYT article concluded, Kress and his partners had begun commercial test planting of GE trees that had carried a gene from a virus (technically a bacteriophage) thought to be able to destroy the citrus greening bacteria. Despite a storm of controversy swirling around his and many other attempts to harness transgenic science to promote food productivity—or in this case, to help orange growers merely survive—he forged ahead with an EPA-approved planting of 300 GE trees.


As the story concluded, “[Kress] kept a list of groups to contact when the first GMO fruit in Florida are ready to pick: environmental organizations, consumer advocates and others. Exactly what he would say when he finally contacted them, he did not know. Whether anyone would drink the juice from his genetically modified oranges, he did not know.


“But he had decided to move ahead.”


Which is exactly what the rest of the food industry needs to do, as well.


The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.