Public will overcome GMO fears when they realise benefits - US expert

Scientists should stop telling people what they do and says why they do it. With special feature audio and video.

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Transparency is the best way to overcome people's opposition to genetically-modified organisms (GMOs), says Jack Bobo, a keynote speaker at this week's NZ Bio conference in Auckland.

Mr Bobo is the chief communications officer for US-based synthetic biology company Intrexon, whose subsidiaries are promoting several controversial GM products –from mosquitoes to fight dengue fever to locally-farmed salmon and non-browning apples.

In New Zealand, GMOs have been in the headlines after Environment Minister Nick Smith said he was considering what action to take over a High Court ruling last month allowing regional councils to control the release of GMOs under the Resource Management Act.

Dr Smith says the government will review whether to change the law to give that responsibility to the Environmental Protection Authority.

Mr Bobo, a former US State Department biotech adviser, says New Zealanders use GMOs daily in the food they eat – in beer, wine and cheese – without knowing it because labelling policies don't require it to be disclosed.

"If labelling policy hides that from consumers, people don't know it's important to them," he says. "Transparency is ultimately what is going to help us solve the problem because you can't have trust without transparency."

Mr Bobo says he often tells scientists that if people don't trust them science doesn't matter and if people do trust them the science doesn't matter.

"Scientists need to stop telling people what they do and tell them why they do it. I've met a lot of people who don't trust government or big business but they all love science.

"It's about identifying shared values, building trust and delivering benefits. If you can't deliver a benefit, you can't be surprised if someone doesn't want something."

Decision takes away choice
Mr Bobo says having local government decide on the release of GMOs was taking the choice from consumers and putting it into the hands of elected officials.

He likens this to US consumers banning imports such as lamb and dairy from New Zealand because they think it's better for the environment to buy local when, in fact, there is a smaller environmental footprint from producing it in this country and shipping it to the US.

"That's why I would suggest science really needs to be the arbiter of what's allowed and then people should choose for themselves what they want," he says.

GMO technology can play a part in solving the world's food shortage problems but it's only part of the picture, he said. Nine million people will die this year from hunger – or one person every four seconds, he says.

Jacques Diouf, the former director-general of UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation, said to keep up with human population growth, the amount of food needed to be produced in the next 50 years was greater than what has been produced during the past 10,000 years.

The next 35 years are not just the most important 35 years in the history of agriculture, they are also the most important 35 years they will ever be because after 2050 the world population will begin to level off quickly, Mr Bobo says.

"The real challenge for us is to get to 2050 without cutting down our forests and without draining our lakes, rivers and aquifers and if we do, in many ways we're good forever."

Zika virus issues
Some have suggested Intrexon subsidiary Oxitec's release of genetically-modified insects in Brazil three years ago could be to blame for the Zika virus outbreak.

It worked on the same type of mosquito that carries the virus in 2013 by engineering them to have offspring that die out before they can breed, thus reducing the number of the disease-carrying bugs.

Mr Bobo says that theory has not gained traction anywhere in the world. Oxitec had already completed its first trials in the north of Brazil two years before Zika turned up.

Oxitec got commercial approval in 2014 and started releasing its GM-mosquitoes in the town of Piracicaba last year. After one year the incidence of dengue fever has dropped 91%, leading to the release being expanded over the entire city centre of 60,000. The company is now building a new facility to handle that.

The Cayman Islands has also started a programme aimed at eliminating aedes aegypti, the mosquito that spreads dengue, Zika and yellow fever. 

Oxitec also has permission to do a field trial on 1000 people in the Florida Keys. However, the local community has decided to put the question to a referendum that will be held on US election day, November 8.

Mr Bobo says a recent independent survey shows about 60% of Florida residents support the release while 61 members of the Florida legislature have signed a letter urging the federal government to support the move.

"While you may be debating the question of whether GMOs are good or bad, it's pretty exciting for us that we have those politicians going on the record and asking for the technology," he says.

If the vote goes against Oxitec, Mr Bobo says the release is still likely in other parts of Florida where there is less opposition.

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(BusinessDesk)

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