Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Science and Agriculture--Taking Them to the Farmers, the Teachers, the Public

Featured in the collage--upper left from left: Kent Schescke, Dr. Prakash, and David Songstad; upper right from left: Julie Tesch, William Craft, Dr. Prakash, Doyle Karr, and Kimberly Reed; lower left from left: Leela Prakash, Dr. Prakash, and Julie Borlaug Larson; lower center: Ambassador Kenneth Quinn; lower right: Dr. Prakash and Wendy Srnic.

For the sixth year in a row, the winner of the Borlaug CAST Communication Award was honored at a World Food Prize side event, and this year’s recipient—Dr. Channapatna Prakash —gave a memorable keynote address: Everything I Know about GMOs, I Learned on Social Media. Dr. Prakash and other ag/science experts made the October 14 gathering a memorable event. Highlights include the following:

CAST President David Songstad introduced Dr. Prakash by telling a personal story. Songstad met Prakash years ago—and he knew then that the dynamic researcher from India would be a leader in the realm of science and ag communication.

Wendy Srnic of DuPont Pioneer pointed out that Dr. Prakash had helped generate the “Norman Borlaug Rap”—the song was written in 2004 on the occasion of Borlaug’s 90th birthday. The YouTube version is available here.

Julie Borlaug Larson of Texas A&M spoke of her grandfather’s mission to “take it to the farmer.” She is not only continuing that effort; she believes it is also important to “take it to the public.”

The 2012 BCCA recipient, Carl Winter of UC-Davis, attended the event. Many remember his entertaining presentation three years ago. Dr. Winter will soon publish a research paper dealing with important issues regarding the use of pesticides.

World Food Prize President Kenneth Quinn noted that Norman Borlaug is a global hero. He also said that technology (even basics such as roads) leads to improved food production; biotech ag can build bridges—and peace.

CAST President-Elect Mark Armfelt reflected on the events by citing a concrete example of the efforts that go on during WFP and BCCA events. “A farmer from Uganda said with a raised voice, ‘I cannot listen to what if scenarios from some person in a lab somewhere; people in Uganda are dying from hunger; we need to employ all technologies--including GMO--to feed them. GMO food has never hurt anyone.’ Third world folks don’t want ongoing handouts; they want economic opportunity. Everyone also talked about the need for those of us in agriculture to speak up about the safety of and need for technology.”

The International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation organized a second session—a panel discussion about Answering the Challenge of Expo Milano 2015: Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life. IFIC Foundation President Kimberly Reed moderated the session, and panelists—including Dr. Prakash, U.S. Department of State Deputy Assistant Secretary William Craft, and DuPont Director of Biotechnology Public Policy Doyle Karr—discussed various topics centered around the need for effective communication about biotech and ag innovation. They also fielded questions from the audience.

At the end of the ceremony, Julie Tesch of the American Farm Bureau Foundation for Agriculture spoke for her organization and the International Food Information Council Foundation as they announced the global launch of Bringing Biotechnology to Life, a free educational resource that aims to facilitate learning about agricultural biotechnology and its role in food production. Tesch built on Julie Borlaug Larson’s theme by stating that the resource is an effort to “take it to the teachers.”

Dr. Prakash’s presentation included images and commentary about the importance of food production, science, and communication. One of the slides he used shows a message from a thankful resident of Liberia after the development of an Ebola vaccine: “Thank you science.”

CAST EVP Kent Schescke summed up the occasion by saying, “CAST appreciates the opportunity to present the Borlaug CAST Communication Award as an important side event to the World Food Prize Celebration and Borlaug Dialogue. This award highlights and recognizes the importance of communicating credible science. Presenting this award during the World Food Prize provides the opportunity to link the important roles of science and technology in addressing the challenges of global food security.”

by dan gogerty

Monday, October 5, 2015

Process Food Labeling--Pros, Cons, Recommendations

Warning: Process Food Labels May Cause Confusion

Consumers want clear information about the food they purchase, but labels do not always come through in a satisfactory manner. The Council for Agricultural Science and Technology offers a new paper about this issue:  Process Labeling of Food: Consumer Behavior, the Agricultural Sector, and Policy Recommendations. Click here for access to free downloads of the full Issue Paper and the one-page Ag QuickCAST.

The authors of this timely paper provide needed clarity about the labeling controversy. They examine what is known regarding consumer reactions to process labels; they identify the legal framework for process labeling; and they provide policy recommendations that highlight the pros and cons of labels. The following editorial from the authors explains their key points.

Should Process Labeling of Food Be Banned?
By Kent D. Messer, Shawna Bligh, Marco Costanigro, and Harry M. Kaiser

The simple phrase “You are what you eat” is commonly taught to children and then repeated throughout one’s life. This phrase speaks to the intimate connection between individuals’ food choices and their health—and even their personal identity. Yet most consumers rarely grow their own food, which means that what people “are” is completely out of their control. Given today’s global food supply chain, consumers cannot directly observe the production process that created the food they eat, which is a situation that economists refer to as asymmetric information and one that is ripe for mistrust.

In response to this situation, consumers are frequently exposed to labels communicating specific processing aspects of food production, such as Certified Organic, Rainforest Alliance Certified, rbST Free, and Free Range. Increasingly, policymakers are looking into this issue because at least 26 states have proposed labeling legislation for foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs). In 2014, Vermont required manufacturers to label food if it contained GMOs.

At the root of the push for mandatory process labeling is the desire for individual control and diffuse distrust in the safety and health of the food produced by modern agriculture. Consumers associate process labels to differences in product quality, but also to other ethical, social, and environmental consequences of food production. When labeling empowers people with knowledge and better-informed quality expectations, it increases the number of choices available for consumers and opens new market opportunities for producers. Labels can also help remove harmful ingredients from the food we eat, as happened with trans fats.

Unfortunately, these win-win situations do not always materialize. The fundamental problem with process labels is that they are subject to consumers’ interpretation; that is, the implications of adopting one process instead of another are left to consumers to figure out. How can we verify that organic food is making us healthier? How do we know that it is helping protect the environment? Many people have opinions—especially food gurus, self-asserted health experts, and environmental activists—and these people seek to persuade the public. Yet these questions should be evaluated by careful science.

Without such an evaluation, labeling the benefits for a new product can unfairly cast the conventionally produced product in a negative light. This type of stigmatization of the conventional product can be particularly problematic in situations in which no scientific evidence exists that the food produced with the conventional process causes harm, or even that it is compositionally any different.

The unintended consequences of process labeling can be increased food prices and the stunting of scientific and technological advances in agriculture. This last issue is particularly troubling as society seeks to reduce poverty and food insecurity in the United States and throughout the world.

Given these problems with process labels, should they be banned? We say no.

Labels can be good for consumers, especially in situations in which the product has been scientifically demonstrated to harm human health. Labels can also provide producers with new market opportunities. Additionally, banning labels undermines consumer trust in the agricultural sector.
Labeling claims should be true and scientifically verifiable, however. This condition should hold for all claims related to labor practices, environmental impact, or effects on human health. In particular, labels claiming a product “contains” or is “free of” a certain production process should also include information on the package stating the current scientific consensus regarding the importance of this attribute.

Finally, producers and policymakers need to be more imaginative about next-generation process labels. For instance, combining smartphone technology and quick response (QR) codes on food products could provide consumers with valuable information. Also, moving away from simple all-or-nothing labels would help because they rarely tell an accurate story. For example, instead of coffee being either labeledas “bird friendly” or not, it could be given a 1–10 score on its environmental impact as determined by a third-party scientific assessment. Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification has been using four levels for construction.

Bringing these approaches to the context of agricultural products would be a positive step forward for both consumers and producers and would be much better than banning labels.