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Conference addresses consumer concerns about biotechnology

Photo by Mark Dearmon

Amid news reports that bioengineered corn intended for animals had turned up in taco shells, about 160 people gathered at the 17th Eloise S. Cofer Family and Community Issues Forum in October to learn more about biotechnology and food.

The forum, entitled “Biotechnology, Food, and the Consumer,” was held Oct. 27 in Research Triangle Park and was sponsored by the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Five of the nation’s top experts on biotechnology presented information to the group, which included Extension professionals, dieticians, university faculty and industry representatives. The experts were Dr. Tom Hoban, sociologist from N.C. State University, who has studied public opinion on biotechnology; Dr. Susan Harlander, president of BIOrational Consultants Inc., Minneapolis; Dr. Lester Crawford, director of the Georgetown Center for Food and Nutrition Policy, Washington, D.C.; Dr. C.S. Prakash, of Tuskegee University, Alabama; and Dr. Mary Mulry, president of FoodWise Inc., Boulder, Colo.

Panelists discussed the importance of educating the public about biotechnology and how it can improve food for a world population expected to double in the next 40 years. Decreased pesticide use, disease resistance, increased yields and vitamin-enhanced food products were discussed as potential benefits of the technology.

Dr. Angela Fraser, food safety specialist in family and consumer sciences and a conference organizer, said Extension’s family and consumer educators can play an important role in helping the public understand biotechnology.

“Consumers will ultimately decide whether they want biotech-derived foods. Family and consumer educators have the ability to help consumers in their decision-making process by providing them with unbiased, science-based information in a form that is meaningful and useful,” Fraser said.

Most panelists emphasized how bioengineering was simply a more precise method of breeding, allowing researchers to selectively insert a specific gene into an organism. Yet Mulry, a consumer advocate, argued that bioengineering was very different from traditional plant breeding because it allowed the transfer of genetic material from one species to another. She also stressed that science should take seriously the consumer concerns about the safety of bioengineered foods to the people who eat them and to the environment.

In the weeks before the conference, news media reported that bioengineered corn approved only for animals had turned up in several varieties of taco shells. The presence of the StarLink corn in food for humans, discovered by an independent consumer group, came as a surprise to many in the biotechnology industry and to government regulatory agencies. The corn, which was genetically engineered to be toxic to insect pests, was not approved for consumption by humans.

Hoban, who has followed mainstream public opinion on biotechnology over the years, said surveys conducted in early October showed little change in response to news about the StarLink corn. Although more than half of those surveyed had heard that StarLink corn had been removed from the market, 95 percent reported no change in their buying behavior with respect to possible genetically engineered foods. (See related article in the 'Items of Interest' section of this site.)

The conference is named in honor of Dr. Eloise S. Cofer, who served 17 years as assistant director of the N.C. Agricultural Extension Service with responsibility for the home economics program. She established the Family Living Seminar in 1976, which was named for her when she retired.

Natalie Hampton


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