Chicago-April 10–The Biotechnology Industry Organization's annual meeting (BIO 2006) is protean. At its heart it is a rug bazaar in which biotech merchants meet to truck and trade and work out mutually beneficial deals. If the meeting is a bazaar, the vast exhibition hall with more than 1500 booths is its souk. One participant said that three days at BIO 2006 is the equivalent of six months of business meetings. Nearly 20,000 biotech researchers, executives, lawyers, and lobbyists attend this meeting. Besides the meetings there is a full slate of panel discussions with experts on topics ranging from biodefense to regenerative medicine.
In the afternoon I dropped by a couple of panel discussions. One panel looked at the progress being made at "Manipulating the Immune System to Fight Cancer." One of the jobs of our immune system is to patrol our bodies looking to destroy cells that start to grow wildly. Without going into great detail, Svetomir Markovic from the Mayo Clinic described his team's efforts to cure metastatic melanoma by combining endogenous cancer vaccines (made using a patient's own tumor cells) with exogenous vaccines and overcoming a tumor's ability to silence immune response. Carla Yunis from 3M Pharmaceuticals described the success of Aldara, an immune response modifier, that has shown success in treating early skin cancers. Progress is being made, especially in researchers' understanding of how cancer develops, but no sweeping claims about breakthroughs in curing cancer were made.
The next panel I attended was a discussion of "Agricultural Biotechnology and the Consumer." The speakers noted that more than 1 billion acres of biotech crops have been planted in the last ten years. What do American consumers think about biotech crops? This was the issue addressed by David Schmidt, President & CEO, International Food Information Council (IFIC). Located in Washington, DC, Schmidt said that IFIC is charged with communicating science-based information about food safety and nutriion to health professionals, journalists, educators and government officials. IFIC is funded largely by broad-based food and beverage companies, but it does not lobby.
In any case, Schmidt shared the results of a consumer survey about Americans' attitudes toward food safety and biotech. It turns out that Americans don't think about biotech much at all. Biotech crops are not top of the mind safety concerns for Americans at all. Asked an open-ended question about whether they "avoided or eaten less of a food or ingredient" recently: 58 percent of consumers said they had avoided sugar and carbohydrates. Next 37 percent avoided fat; 34 percent shunned animal products; 14 percent passed up salt or spices; and 11 percent steered clear of snack foods. Less than 1/2 percent mentioned anything related to avoiding foods made using ingredients from biotech crops.
Another open-ended question asked consumers what food safety issues worried them? Forty-two percent were concerned about food handling; 28 percent fretted about foodborne illnesses; 23 percent were troubled by preservatives; 14 percent were nervous about packaging; 7 percent were apprehensive about pesticides. Again, less than 1/2 percent of respondents mentioned being bothered about biotech crops as a food safety issue.
An additional open-ended question asked what extra new information consumers would want on food labels? Fully 75 percent could not think of a thing that they wanted to add. Less than 10 percent suggested that labels might carry more information on ingredients and nutrition. Again, less than 1/2 percent suggested that they would be interested in labels identifying foods with biotech ingredients.
Consumers were also asked if they thought biotechnology would provide benefits for their families within the next five years? Sixty-two percent said yes, and 21 percent said no. This is down from 78 percent in 1997. Schmidt attributed part of the fall in the public's approval of biotech to the campaigns by organic and natural farmers and purveyors to demonize biotechnology.