SAN FRANCISCO - Economists and consumer groups warned the biotechnology industry that ignoring social, cultural and emotional concerns about the use of genetically engineered crops could lead to rejection of the technology.
Panels composed of scientists, consumer advocates, government and industry representatives, ethicists and communications experts gathered here Sunday and Monday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
A variety of experts cautioned the agricultural biotechnology industry that their reliance on scientific arguments to convince consumers of the desirability of genetically engineered foods is likely to fail.
"The debate is not only or primarily about science at all. It's about trust," said Lori Andrews of the Illinois Institute of Technology.
If biotech proponents continue to focus on just science and ignore other issues in the debate, the result could be tougher government regulations, Andrews said. Even those pro-biotech advocates that tout science sometimes make scientifically questionable assertions, she said. And attempting to portray opponents of the technology as uninformed and unscientific is likely to backfire.
"The proponents of biotechnology have to keep their minds open and not close off discussion," Andrews said.
Biotechnology companies have taken comfort in the fact that U.S. consumers say in surveys they trust government regulations to protect the food supply. That trust in regulatory bodies such as the Food and Drug Administration would certainly prevent a European-style backlash against genetically modified foods in the United States, biotech promoters said.
But that trust may not rest on a solid foundation, economists warn.
"Consumer confidence here is vulnerable to regulatory and marketing blunders," said Katherine Smith of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service.
The biotechnology industry needs to be aware that one disastrous incident will likely lead to increased scrutiny of the industry, Andrews said.
The StarLink corn debacle in September in which a variety of genetically engineered corn intended only for animal consumption got mixed into human food, could be the just the opportunity biotech opponents need to push for tighter regulations on genetically engineered foods, she said.
Concerns over the safety of the food supply and the government's ability to regulate industry have grown in the wake of the spread of mad cow disease in Europe, said Edward Groth of Consumers Union, a consumer advocacy group that publishes the magazine Consumer Reports.
"The public has learned from that, that even if you have somebody minding the store, they're likely to screw up," he said.
Consumers who express concerns over possible long-term health effects or environmental consequences of genetically engineered foods resent having their worries dismissed, Groth said.
"The attempt to overwhelm concern with science generates outrage," he said.
Scientists are equally frustrated by the difficulty of getting their message about the benefits of biotechnology out to the public. Anti-biotech groups continually stir up controversy and demand answers that scientists simply cannot give, said Susanne Huttner, the vice provost for research for the University of California system.
"We can't prove that there is no risk," Huttner said.