The Complex Story of GMOs, Told from the DuPont Perspective
When you and your team (Biotechnology Public Policy at DuPont) look at the public perception landscape on genetically modified (GM) or transgenic organisms, what are the most prevalent trends you see?
Doyle: I think there’s a lot out there that is positive. I think at the same time, there are a lot of challenges because there is a lot that isn’t understood about the technology. This lack of understanding is often what you see reflected on social media. We also believe the vast majority of the public may not be engaged on this topic, so if you simply ask them, “Should you be scared?” they will default to the answer of, “Yes, we should be.”
One of the major concerns is that many science and safety reviews come from big businesses or are industry-backed. Regardless of what the actual breakdown of the studies is (industry vs. independent, research institutions vs. universities), how do you respond to this concern?
Doyle: I think there is certainly a lot of information coming out of private industry, but that’s also the mechanism through which we fuel innovation. If you look at how this process works, it starts with people investing in innovation and new scientific achievements and then using that intellectual property to build a business.
If you talk to public researchers in academia, their frustration today is that the costs of regulatory compliance—either to bring products to market and make them viable, or to just use them for research—has become prohibitively high.
What regulations and standards are currently in place in the US around the safety of GMO products used for human consumption? And can you speak about the environmental and health effects of these products?
Doyle: There are three agencies in the United States that look at biotech products. They work under a Coordinated Framework to help bring these products to market. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) looks at field tests and asks questions about environmental safety and human safety. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) focuses on those products that have in-plant insecticide properties. They have their eye on human, animal, and environmental safety. And then you have the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is also looking, from a human health standpoint, at the protection of food safety when they review potential products.
Jacque: The government officials, who are reviewing the research that we submit to obtain approval to grow or import grains from a GM crop, are highly qualified and skilled researchers themselves, in many cases. They may have worked in public research at one point or another. So there is a peer review process that happens as part of regulatory approval that I think is not as well known.
More than 70 countries have approved the import or cultivation of biotech crops since their introduction. Within each of those, in most cases, more than one agency is reviewing our application for approval. So a lot of experts review the science that we conduct before an application is approved.
Do you think that educating the public about the regulatory and approval processes is enough to boost acceptance and trust around these products?
Doyle: It’s definitely a piece of the puzzle. As with many things, people are getting information from many different places with different degrees of trust. At DuPont, we strive to be open to the questions and listen very closely to what people are asking. We need to acknowledge that people have concerns, as opposed to just saying, “There’s no reason for you to be afraid of this stuff, and here’s the science.”
I Googled, “Why are GMOs bad?” The most common results were that GMOs enable overuse of pesticides and herbicides, they are environmentally damaging, and consumption of GMO products is bad for your health. How is DuPont responding to these types of concerns?
Jacque: I think a big piece of our response is GMOAnswers.com, a platform created and supported by organizations and companies in the biotech industry. The site is a good medium for people to at least ask us questions like, “Is this true?” or, “What can we do about a certain issue?” In collaboration with other industry players, as well as independent academics, farmers, and other experts, we then do our best to answer those questions.
From a market standpoint, do you think that GMO development and use allow big businesses like DuPont and Monsanto to create monopolies in the agriculture and crop industries?
Jacque: Part of the challenge is that agriculture overall is consolidating. Even at the farm level, it’s hard to afford to be a farmer unless you have enough resources to have enough land and to purchase the most sophisticated equipment and tools, so that you can get enough yield to sustain your family and your business. I don’t think this trend is something we can attribute to one technology over another. Part of the challenge is that the number of companies that have the capital to explore potential solutions, work them through the regulatory hurdles, and get the solutions to market is small.
Given the increased demand for food, especially in developing countries as a result of population growth, what role do you think GMOs play in the global food supply?
Doyle: Global food security is a multifaceted challenge. DuPont commissioned the Economist Intelligence Unit to put together an index of food security that evaluated 109 countries based on 28 factors that contribute to food insecurity—for example, infrastructure, R&D investment, ethics and corruption, and food production. GM seeds can definitely contribute in a positive way, by contributing to agricultural productivity, but they are just one part of the solution.
I’m curious if you see differences in concerns among the countries you talk to. For example, the US has the luxury of rejecting GM crops, whereas a developing country may be struggling to feed its population and may be more open to accepting GMOs.
Doyle: What I would say is that the range of opinions on GM technology exists everywhere. In India, where they could use this technology like nowhere else, the range of opinions reminds us a lot of California. There, we have people who are very strong advocates of this technology and appreciate the safety and the value it could bring. And there are others who have a lot of questions and concerns. California’s need for food versus India’s need for food is quite different, yet you still see a very similar range of opinions. And we see that in all the countries we talk to.
I think a more practical pathway toward acceptance is to get more people, especially the farmers who will be using these products, to learn more about the technology and its applications, try it out, and ultimately make their own choices on what system works best for them. Achieving understanding and acceptance is harder when you get further up the value chain, where people aren’t actually engaged in using the technology or taking the time to understand it before they pay for the end product. There’s a difference in different regions of the world as far as the degree of acceptance, but the range of opinions definitely exists everywhere.
What role do DuPont and other companies in the industry play in shaping the policy around GMO acceptance and use?
Doyle: Our goals and our interests are around good public policy, and so we’re looking at how to achieve this over the long haul. As a business, nothing is certain, so being able to work toward a target or have some certainty about what the regulation will be is really valuable. Then you can decide whether or not something is worth your investment, and you can plan appropriately for those types of changes. Related to this is fairness in public policy, and we try to make sure that policymakers fully understand the subject. We want them to have all the information at their disposal, so they can choose how to use it to design the best policies.
With regard to public policy, we would certainly like the freedom to be innovative and provide choices to the marketplace. But we also appreciate the value of a regulatory environment that gives consumers confidence that the products they’re buying have been through a review—that ensures that responsible agencies have looked at the nuances from a scientific and educated standpoint. We look at it both ways and try to help others come to the same conclusion.
Feature Photo: cc/(lincolnblues)