house ag committee: hearing on agricultural biotechnology

On Wednesday, the United States House of Representatives Committee on Agriculture, Subcommittee on Horticulture, Research, Biotechnology, & Foreign Agriculture heard testimony on the “Societal Benefits of Agricultural Biotechnology.” Below is an overview of such:

Dr. David Just, PhD: Professor of Applied Economics & Management at Cornell University and Co-Director of the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition.

An excerpt of Just’s testimony, which can be found in full here:

Consumers have developed misperceptions regarding the benefits of biotechnology in part because the industry does not explain those benefits to them. Industry has focused understandably on marketing the benefits of growing these crops on farmers, leaving consumers with a latent understanding of why genetic modifications are introduced into the food supply to begin with.

Just’s research centers around behavioral economics and consumer behavior, particularly with nutrition. While it has been shown that consumers given the choice between conventional foods and GMOs will express a strong preference towards conventional foods, his research has also shown that:

When the same choice [between conventional and GMO foods] is presented in such a way that consumers can understand the reasons for genetic modification, they overwhelmingly choose GMOs. For example, consumers would rather buy poultry that has been genetically modified to resist diseases than chicken that has been fed antibiotics to accomplish the same purpose. In fact, almost 85% prefer genetic modification in this case. This preference is even stronger for those with a college education, in which case more than 90% would select the genetic modification. Supporting studies by other researchers find that consumers are enthusiastic about GMOs that have been introduced in order to enhance nutrition, safety or health, but a little more skeptical of those introduced primarily to address agricultural productivity. When consumers are presented with direct explanations of the direct benefits to consumers, they are much more willing to accept this technology.

Perhaps we have a lot to learn from this research?

 

Dr. Calestous Juma, PhD: Harvard Kennedy School Professor of the Practice of International Development

Juma’s testimony can be found in full here. An excerpt:

Juma argues that although many transgenic crops are still in their early states of adoption and even more are still being tested and developed, emerging trends show significant societal benefits through positive economic impact (especially by raising farm incomes), fostering food security, and promoting environmental sustainability … The pipeline of crops with potential benefits include a wide range of applications such as enhanced photosynthesis, stress tolerance, aluminum tolerance, salinity tolerance, pest and disease resistance, nitrogen use efficiency, phosphate use efficiency, and nitrogen fixation. However, restrictive regulations are undermining the ability of society to reap these benefits.

Economic Benefits: come from increased yield, resistance to loss, and ultimately increased income and lower prices. For this, he uses transgenic cotton production in India as a prominent example, in addition to: the transgenic papaya’s success in Hawaii; pest-resistant eggplant in Bangladesh, India, and the Philippines; and the promise this technology holds for combating citrus greening currently destroying the United States’ citrus industry.

Nutritional Benefits: use in biofortification of staple crops (i.e. Golden Rice and Vitamin A); high-oleic oil soybean, aiming to eliminate trans fats; and even the “Arctic Apple,” designed to resist browning, and therefore encouraging easier and healthier lunch choices for parents and their children.

Environmental Benefits: less pesticides, increase of agricultural production with less land, and combating the effects of climate change (i.e. through drought-resistant crops)

The United States has historically played a critical role as a champion of biotechnology innovation worldwide. Its leadership is urgently needed at a time when global agricultural challenges are mounting … A nation whose regulatory processes take as long as the duration of a patent cannot continue to be a champion of innovation. This has to change and there is no better time than the present.”

 

Dr. Olga Bolden-Tiller, PhD: Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences, Tuskegee University

Above all else, Bolden-Tiller makes one thing very clear in her testimony:

The science [of agricultural biotechnology] is advancing; what is not advancing adequately is the communication and conversations about biotechnology with all components of our society. Creativity and resources must be increased to bring all members of the U.S. family along in terms of sharing in the benefits of the new technologies to improve in their quality of life.

 

Mrs. Joanna Lidback: Owner, The Farm at Wheeler Mountain; on behalf of Agri-Mark Dairy Cooperative and the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives

Lidback, a Cornell University Alumna and first-generation dairy farmer in Vermont—where the discourse over genetically modified ingredients in food is currently at its peak, talks of the personal benefits of biotechnology on her farm:

The use of GMOs is also important to the economic sustainability of our farm. In speaking with our animal nutritionist in preparing for this testimony, he pointed out that the only non-GMO feed he could get us right now was organic. An organic basic 20% protein complete feed pellet would cost $758 per ton; the same non-organic feed is $344 per ton. On our small farm, we purchase around 15 to 16 tons of grain per month. So, using 15 tons, that would more than double our grain bill …. a difference of $6,210 a month of $74,520 per year. I do not see how we could profitably farm in the long term with those increased feed costs.

Those costs, in turn, are transferred to the consumer. Other benefits of agricultural biotechnology that Lidback highlights include genomic testing of cattle, technology used to develop medications and vaccines, and bovine somatotropin hormone (BST):

This has already happened [consumer rejection to biotechnology]  as we saw with the controversy over the use of recombinant Bovine Somatotropin (rBST), a technology that has no adverse effects on human health. Consumers, not understanding the science and being driven by fear stirred up by the anti-agriculture activists, rejected this technology for no sound reason. While many said that rBST was an example of the evils of “big agriculture,” the truth is that many small farms used rBST as a way to improve and grow their businesses, better utilizing existing resources and without needing more capital expenditures.

Witnesses for the July 9 hearing on biotechnology included professors from Cornell, Harvard, and Tuskegee, in addition to a first-generation VT dairy farmer. (Image via @houseagcommittee on Instagram)

Witnesses for the July 9 hearing on biotechnology included professors from Cornell, Harvard, and Tuskegee, in addition to a first-generation VT dairy farmer. (Image via @houseagcommittee on Instagram)

I couldn’t agree more. Nor could I agree more with the fact that these testimonies continue to verify why I want to commit my academic and life work to contributing to this field of communication and policy surrounding this technology, within all components of our society.

The full webcast of the hearing can soon be found on the House Agriculture Committee’s site.

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