Magazine article Communication World

Overcoming Phood Phobia: Changing Perceptions about Bio-Engineered Products

Magazine article Communication World

Overcoming Phood Phobia: Changing Perceptions about Bio-Engineered Products

Article excerpt



These were the titles of two speeches given by an environmental activist and a grain company executive discussing bio-engineered food products. Which headline got the most attention?

It used to be that agriculture and its products were given a "free ride" in American public opinion. The family farm, the farm vote, and the positive qualities of rural living gave agriculture an aura of sanctity.

This all has changed. The U.S. has become an overwhelmingly urban nation. Politicians don't need whatever small farm vote there is, and food production and processing are perceived to be in the hands of nefarious big businesses. The food ignorance of the urban consumer ("Mommy, where do they grow chicken breasts?"), the political/media savvy of anti-agribusiness groups, and the passivity of media have put anyone in the food business in a precarious position. Some people in agribusiness still don't realize how the rules of communicating have changed in the last decade.

Corporate Response

Referring to the continuing and highly vocal criticism of genetically modified (GMO) crops and bio-foods, the CEO of Johnson and Pioneer Hi-Bred International recently suggested that the U.S. needs to wage a war against "GMO propaganda," and that such a war should not be the sole responsibility of the companies that sell seeds. Pioneer Hi-Bred's Charles Johnson added this about responding to growing consumers' fears: "We need to listen enough to understand what in their food system could be improved," while remaining in their "value system."

What concerns Johnson and Pioneer concerns a host of others - from international corporate giants such as Monsanto and DuPont, who are in the forefront of the biotech revolution, to America's beef, pork and poultry producers who see their products banned by the European Union because of protectionist rules often disguised as food safety claims. The U.S. National Cattleman's Beef Association estimates that the EU ban on hormone-treated beef costs U.S. cattle producers about $500 million in lost sales each year. The National Pork Producers Council told a recent U.S. congressional hearing on international trade that the EU pork market "has basically been closed to the U.S. pork industry for over 10 years."

Greenpeace and other advocacy groups on the European continent continue their own war against GMO grains and soybeans. There's strong pressure on the EU to label foods from these commodities as genetically modified. In February, four tons of genetically modified soybeans were heaped in front of the British Prime Minister's residence in a protest. There is also resistance to using hormones in dairy cattle. The Wall Street Journal reported in March that the EU's five-year-old ban on the sale of Monsanto's BST synthetic cow hormone will likely continue because an EU-appointed panel is raising human health concerns that have already been rejected by other governments. In Japan, a government survey of consumers in 1997 found that more than 80 percent of those questioned had "reservations" about GMO foods. More than 92 percent in the Japanese survey favored mandatory labeling.

Why this fear of food that is produced by employing some of the best bio-technology available today? Why this fear when there is no scientific basis for it? And why is the term "Frankenstein foods" showing up regularly in reports carried by mainline publications such as Fortune magazine, the Financial Times, and The International Herald Tribune?

Obviously, the producers of genetically modified drugs, commodities, and foodstuffs are not getting their stories across. Sure, their scientists can provide unending information supporting the safety claims behind each product. Sure, there's no evidence to date that these products are doing anything more than their producers claim - turning out greater volumes and more uniform foods at no greater cost than traditional foods. …

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