New ways to play with your food
Last week, the University of Minnesota, where I teach, played host to a conference titled "Foods for Health."
The meeting was devoted to discussions about the promise -- and concerns -- in agricultural biotechnology's role in nutrition.
It included topics about so-called "functional foods" designed to improve health and bridging the gap between foods and medicines.
The meeting brought together academics, scientists, farmers, food industry representatives and policymakers to share their views.
Over the course of the conference, a few consistent themes emerged: the promise of biotechnology, public perceptions, and shared responsibility and trust in how we develop and use it.
Each of these themes plays into how we should think about agricultural biotechnology in the future and the ethics of its development and use.
Agricultural biotechnology promises to create foods with added nutrition, and even to make foods that contain medicines.
For example, vitamin-enhanced crops such as rice are being developed to combat malnutrition in developing countries. And companies are working to grow potatoes and other vegetables that will contain edible vaccines.
But that promise may be tempered by questions about how soon we can expect functional french fries, how safe they will be for both humans and the environment, and how effective they will be once produced.
The technical hurdles will likely be overcome soon, but the adoption of these products hinges on how and whether questions about their responsible production and use are adequately answered.
Before these new "foods for health" become widespread, there needs to be a clear plan for the safety of products to consumers and to the environment.
Because a banana that contains a vaccine against hepatitis will almost certainly be considered both a food and a medicine, we will need to be sure there is oversight from those who scrutinize both foods and medicines.
But before we can assure safety, we need to have a clear understanding of what safety means in this context.
How much risk is acceptable? What about food allergens or the possibility of pollen drifting from genetically modified crops into adjacent fields?
One of the ways to address the public's concerns is to create a transparent, public and honest process for discussing and implementing biotechnology policies.
The public must have an opportunity to understand the proposed uses of agricultural biotechnology and to weigh in on how best to proceed.
Once policies have been created, there must be a clear and open process for applying them, for measuring how well they work, and improving problems that are uncovered.
The importance of trust
Whatever the promise, there can be no future in such biotechnology without public trust.
We need only to look at the recall of the many food products that contained "Starlink" corn to understand the impact of mistrust.
Foods must be safe and the public must be confident in the process that assures its safety. Without such confidence, consumers will not buy products, and future public research funding will be undermined.
Whatever the cause, it is much easier to lose public trust than to recapture it.
What makes discussion and debate about the prospects of "foods for health" so important is the universal aspect of food.
We all eat, and every culture has particular foods and dishes tied to their traditions, going back many generations.
The public may well come to accept the products offered by agricultural biotechnology, but only if the foods of tomorrow are as trusted as the foods of yesterday.
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