HOLMES REPORT: CA movement to ban modified crops stems from industry's refusal to inform the public

Agricultural interests in California are finally waking up to a potential threat to their ability to do business in the state - a threat largely of their own making.

Agricultural interests in California are finally waking up to a potential threat to their ability to do business in the state - a threat largely of their own making.

Two California counties have already passed measures banning genetically modified crops, citing their desire to protect organic crops from contamination, and the issue will be on the ballot in four additional counties this November. Agricultural interests are concerned about any regulation that tells them what they can and can't grow, while others worry that a biotech ban will simply confirm preconceptions about an anti-tech, anti-business bias in California. So groups like the California Cattlemen's Association, the California Rice Commission, and the National Farm Bureau are mobilizing against the initiatives. The attempt to outlaw genetically modified crops at the local level is bad science and bad policy. It's bad science because much evidence shows that fears about modified crops are misguided. In reality, the scientific consensus on biotech is as broad as the scientific consensus on evolution or global climate change. (Yes, I know that forces suspicious of science still deny the existence of both, which is why we need a bipartisan push to promote the idea that empirical data should trump dogma in the policy arena.) It's bad policy for both pragmatic and humanitarian reasons. Pragmatically, if such crops do have any harmful consequences, they are unlikely to respect county borders. On the humanitarian front, opponents of genetically modified foods have put their own narrow, anti-corporate interests ahead of the rather more pressing interests of starving people the world over. But it's also a natural consequence of the biotech industry's refusal - in which the agricultural community has been complicit - to address worries about this new technology. The industry has had more than a decade to educate the public about these crops. Instead, it has acted as if earning the acceptance of the scientific and political elite was sufficient, that wider consumer concerns could be ignored or overridden. That was the attitude that got Monsanto and other biotech companies into trouble in Europe, where popular protests undermined government support for the technology. Now it's creating a problem in California, where local councils are stepping in to fill the regulatory void left by federal authorities, and environmental activists have filled the information vacuum created by industry reticence. The industry has even opposed suggestions that biotech foods should be labeled - a measure that would begin to destigmatize the technology - to counter charges that it has been introduced into the food supply by stealth. If biotech and agriculture companies want people to make sensible choices, they'll have to trust them with more information.
  • Paul Holmes has spent the past 17 years writing about the PR business for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management. He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of www.holmesreport.com.

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