Talk presented in Freiburg, Germany at the 2nd BioValley Life Sciences Conference on "The Future of Plant Engineering" on Friday, November 5, 1999
Peggy G. Lemaux, Ph.D.
Department of Plant and Microbial Biology
University of California, Berkeley CA 94720
Promise of positive impact exists for the new genetic technologies in terms of modifying agricultural crops to create more affordable and nutritious food and feed sources in a more environmentally friendly manner. As with other new technologies, however, come questions about safety and broader populational and environmental impact. While few, if any, activities in todays technologically complex world promise zero risk, individuals are looking to minimize human and environmental risk. One mechanism by which governments assure consumers is the development and implementation of an adequate and trusted regulatory framework that will protect and insure minimal consumer and environmental risk. In the U.S. extensive governmental policy and infrastructure were formulated prior to the entry of genetically engineered products into the commercialization stream. These policies continue to be refined as we move forward in order to allow the responsible development and release of the products of biotechnology. These policies have focused on scientific consideration of consumer and environmental safety risks that also address other consumer concerns.
In the U.S., at least a portion of the unrest about genetically engineered foods derives from the fact that the majority of the population is no longer connected to farming. At the turn of the century, 35% of the population in the U.S. lived and worked on farms; today that number is less then 2%. Because of this distancing of the population from food production, many consumers do not appreciate the problems faced and costs incurred by those who grow, harvest, ship and process our food. In addition, consumers, and even producers, also are often not aware of the role humans have had over the years in changing our food supply. Therefore it is often difficult to determine how the foods of today will be similar to or different from the foods of the past. In part because of some of these issues, judging the safety and impact of these crops becomes more problematic.
The turmoil here in Europe over field testing and import of GMOs has focused on consumer acceptance issues, some peculiar to the situation in Europe. Based on recent events, many consumers in Europe do not have confidence that their regulatory system adequately protects the consumer. Also, there are fundamental economic and sociological issues that influence attitudes and acceptance, a melding between facts and an individual's own values. The new paradigm for agriculture, resulting in part from the increased costs of the product development with the new biotechnological methods, leads to the situation where the development, deployment and production of the new foods are largely controlled by a handful of multinational companies. This type of control, unparalleled in the history of agricultural production, is unsettling to both those involved in food production and those who consume it.
History of Food Development
To put todays concerns into perspective, we need to look at the past. Since the time when humans moved from a nomadic lifestyle into one characterized by the exploitation of native plant and animal life, humans have modified and improved their foods. What once looked like a tiny green grape has been transformed into our modern-day commercial varieties of tomato. This classical breeding approach involved the selection for parents of sexual crosses of tomato varieties with larger, redder fruits and plants with higher pest resistance. These plants were crossed to get progeny that were more resistant to disease and higher yielding. These practices of orchestrating genetic exchange among selected plants (and animals) have been used for thousands of years and continue to the present to improve crop species. Is the tomato of the past still a tomato even though it does not look like the modern fruit we think of as a tomato? The answer of course is yes. The fundamental genetic make-up of the tomato is still the same; it is just rearranged to give different characteristics.
Classical breeding efforts are with increasing frequency augmented with newer genetic technologies, including the use of molecular techniques. These newer techniques, although they involve the same machinery as that which takes place inside the cell during classical breeding, have some significant differences from the time-honored methods. First, the modern methods permit the genetic content of target organisms to be manipulated in a very precise manner, involving in many cases changing one gene amongst the over 100,000 genes present in the plant. In addition, the source of the gene can be any other living organism, whereas the older methods required that the two organisms exchanging genetic materials be closely related, usually members of the same genus or species. Lastly, with genetic engineering methods it is possible to exercise exquisite control over where and when the new gene product will be made.
If you wish to increase the sugar content of a tomato fruit, for example, with classical breeding, one can cross a wild species that has a higher sugar content and try to move that characteristic to the cultivated variety and leave behind the smaller size, greener fruit and bitter taste. In this case you are shuffling tens of thousands of genes in the tomato, trying to get rid of the undesirable ones. It is also possible to effect this change through genetic engineering. In this case you work with only a single gene and you can target the desired change, an increase in sweetness, in the fruit only and nothing else. Is this genetically engineered tomato still a tomato? Again the fundamental genetic make-up of the tomato is the same. In this case only a single gene out of over 100,000 genes that make up the tomato has been changed.
Establishment of Regulatory Policy.
What about these foods, like the modern tomato, that have come to our tables through the shuffling of genetic materials between its wild progenitors? Consumers in the U.S., Europe and Japan take for granted that the foods created by these methods are safe for themselves and their families. This despite the fact that in their natural state most plants, including close relatives, immature stages and nonedible parts of some crop plants, contain toxic compounds. Even the potato, a very close relative of the tomato, contains compounds that can make human consumers sick. But years of selection for less poisonous varieties have lowered the levels of toxins in the potato and other crop species; others foods, like cassava and some types of beans, need careful preparation to make them fit for consumption.
Despite the presence of these natural toxins, we as consumers generally consider our foods to be safe. In developed countries there are very few cases of acute disease caused by the food we eat. But, as with nearly every activity in which we engage, food consumption is not zero risk. It is important to differentiate between safety and zero risk. What individuals define as "safe" is, for them, "acceptable risk" and cannot be determined scientifically. Individuals and societies can decide the level of risk they are willing to accept in their foods, their safety "comfort level", and also what regulatory policies they feel are needed to insure that safety level. This safety level is a matter of public definition, which may or may not take into account scientific measurements of risk.
How should public policy then be determined when public perceptions of safety are at odds with scientific assessments of risk? Which should be given priority? The answer lies somewhere between the two extremes. Public concerns must be taken seriously when they are widespread and persistent. However, these opinions must be tempered with the scientifically determined degree of risk. Policy that ignores scientific assessments will not serve the public good; likewise it cannot be the only guiding principle.
Scientific Risk Assessment versus Perception of Risk
Using scientific information, the potential for food safety risk in genetically engineered foods can be fairly accurately determined; this assessment has formed the basis for certain aspects of U.S. regulatory policy. However, public perception of risk has also influenced regulatory policy. The basis for these perceptions depends on the familiarity, "friendliness" and voluntary nature of the risk. Compare the adverse consumer reactions to bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE)-tainted beef or dioxin-tainted pork, beef and poultry here in the EU to the willing acceptance by many of the risks of cigarette smoking or by a few of the dangers of picking their own wild mushrooms or consuming the deadly puffer fish.
These examples demonstrate that different situations and products often result in different perceptions of acceptable risk by consumers. Biotechnology is an example where public perception of risk varies widely. Because governmental policies take into account risk perception, these different attitudes toward safety of products can affect the development and application of regulatory policy. Policy maker's perceptions of risk can often lead to modifications in regulatory policy that are inconsistent with the scientific measurement of risk. Some consumers believe that regulatory policy should strive for "zero risk", not realizing that developing such policy comes at an economic price and that this price might be inconsistent with the degree of risk and might not be necessary to insure public safety.
Consumer Acceptance of Products of Biotechnology
Genetic engineering or biotechnology is a new technology. When new technologies are introduced into food production, consumer concerns are usually reflected in the level of acceptance of the new technology or product. In the U.S., consumer surveys over the last ten years have found that between 2/3 and 3/4 of consumers are supportive of biotechnology. They likely would accept the products produced by this technology, although the level of acceptance would be influenced by the precise nature of the change. For example, moving a gene from broccoli to tomato is much more acceptable than transferring a human gene into a tomato.
The trend toward acceptance was seen again in a survey conducted in the U.S. by the International Food Information Council (IFIC) in February of this year. In that survey, the majority of U.S. consumers were willing to "purchase a food modified by biotechnology to taste better or fresher" (62%) or a food "modified by biotechnology to be protected from insect damage and requiring fewer pesticides" (77%). Compared to a survey in 1997, the percent of the public willing to accept these products either rose in the case of fresher, tastier food (55%, 1997; 62%, 1999) or remained the same in the case of the insect-protected food (77%, 1997; 77%, 1999).
The most recent publically released poll of U.S. consumers that I was able to find was conducted by Gallup on September 23-26, 1999. This survey did show some significant shifts from earlier polls, although, as I have learned, this might reflect a difference in the way that questions were posed. The survey started by assessing consumer's feelings about the safety of foods in grocery stores; 80% were confident of the safety of foods there; 69% were confident of foods in restaurants. Remember that many foods in U.S. grocery stores and likely served in restaurants today contain ingredients from genetically modified crops, such as soy and corn. Although I have not seen a recent poll in Europe posing these questions about the safety of foods in grocery stores, perceived consumer concerns have forced some E.U. food producers and grocery market chains to take a "GMO-free" pledge.
Awareness of biotechnology appears to have increased over that seen in earlier surveys. Nearly 50% of the population recorded a lot or some awareness; only 30% of the population reported this level of awareness earlier in the year. The only other time the level of awareness was this high in the U.S. was in 1997 right after the reports of Dolly, the cloned sheep. This current level of awareness likely results from the heavy press coverage of events in Europe, which have reached a peak in recent months.
Respondents in the Gallup poll were also asked to rate the likelihood that biotechnology poses a serious health hazard to consumers; 53% thought it did not present a serious hazard, 20% were unsure, and what I thought to be a significant fraction, 27%, thought it posed a serious hazard.
This result seems to be at odds with the expressed confidence that the respondants have in the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the regulatory arm that is responsible for food safety and monitors genetically engineered food products. In the Gallup poll, 15% of Americans have a great deal of confidence in the federal government ensuring the safety of food; an additional 61% have a fair amount of confidence. This totals 3/4 of the population that has confidence in the regulatory agencies! Only 5% of the population has no confidence at all. Again I have not seen such a question posed here in the E.U. but predictions are that this level of confidence would be much lower. As I will discuss later, this is likely one of the primary reasons for differences in consumer perception of risk in the U.S. versus the E.U.
Interest in labeling, as evidenced in the Gallup poll, has risen dramatically over previously conducted polls with over 2/3 of respondants in favor of labeling. This is even in light of a possible increase in price. This difference from earlier polls is interesting because it is in apparent contrast to expressed faith in FDA regulations and in foods in grocery stores and restaurants, and consumers think it is important enough to pay additional cost for the label. I will come back to this point in a moment.
Factors Affecting Acceptance and Public Policy
What factors enter into the public's perceptions of risk of genetically engineered food? And how do these factors differentially affect consumers in the U.S. versus the E.U. The importance of these factors can even vary from country to country or between urban and rural dwellers. What are these factors and how might they influence people's opinions?
The role of science and technology.
In the U.S., Canada and Japan it is generally accepted that science and technology play a role in improving people's lives. The "heritage" in these countries is to look for different and better ways of doing things and, in general, the public sees science and technology as playing a positive role in effecting this change. Citizens of some European countries appear to have a different attitude toward technological change and are more wary of its potential long-term consequences.
Physical Separation of GMOs
Agricultural land in the U.S. is plentiful. The corollary to this situation is that the large populations of urban dwellers are not juxtaposed to acres and acres of cropland on which GMOs are growing. For this reason, the majority of U.S. consumers probably havent thought about some of the issues relating to GMOs. In Europe, wide open spaces are rare and a skeptical public often finds themselves located squarely next to fields of GMOs. Such proximity causes consumers to be much more prone to concerns that GMOs might have a negative impact on the environment that they share with the genetically modified crops.
During this past year, some 80 million acres of genetically engineered crops were grown in the U.S. Only a few thousand acres were grown in the E.U. In addition food imports into Europe and farm subsidies are high. Therefore this creates a strong economic incentive to impose bans on U.S. food imports, commodities such as GM corn and soy. Conversely there are compelling economic reasons for the U.S. to resist these bans, since it is for the most part U.S. companies that produce the GMOs and U.S. farmers that grow them. A trade embargo results in a favorable economic cash flow situation for the E.U. A recent decision by a major U.S. commodity handler, Archer Daniels Midland, to require segregation of GM and non-GM products was, I believe, directly precipitated by their worries about the outcome of this trade war.
Public Education Efforts.
In the early 1990's, members of U.S. public and private research organizations, including universities, began pro-active efforts to educate the public about genetic engineering. The target audiences included members of the media and public opinion leaders, both of which play a pivotal role in determining exactly what information people receive regarding an issue, in what way that information is presented and in what manner this information is used to shape public policy. Trusted governmental and professional agencies became actively involved in information dissemination and education. For example, when recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST) was introduced, the former U.S. Surgeon General and several other high-level governmental and public-sector agencies, e.g. American Medical Association, Food and Drug Administration and American Dietetic Association, released information regarding its safety to the popular press and in peer-reviewed scientific journals. An informational "hot line" was opened to answer questions from the consumer. If this kind of interaction does not occur, an informational void exists and can be quickly filled by organizations willing to provide information.
It is claimed by some that Americans are not well-educated, in fact are rather ill-informed about GMOs. This contention is supported by the fact that the February, 1999 poll shows that half of the U.S. consumers polled believed that their groceries were free from GMOs, when in fact nearly 60% of the U.S.' processed foods contains some GMOs. This explanation might be true. It might, however, be equally likely that this "ignorance" results from the fact that U.S. consumers simply do not care about this aspect of their food production and therefore it is not on their "radar screen".
Role of regulatory policy.
As I alluded to earlier, trust in regulatory authority is crucial in addressing consumer safety issues. Americans generally have trust in their federal regulatory system. For many, although certainly not all Americans, hearing that the Food and Drug Administration has approved a particular food or drug increases their confidence in its safety. Most consumers do not have the time or resources to do independent research on food or drug safety issues. They place their trust in an agency that has a good track record for safety. Safety assessments of foods in the U.S. is augmented by the active participation of professional organizations, such as, for example, the American Medical Association and the American Dietetic Association, who often conduct independent safety assessments.
The situation with regard to consumer faith in the regulatory system is quite different in the European Union, as I am sure many of you are aware. Understandably, European citizens suffered a tremendous decrease in governmental trust during the bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) crisis, acknowledged by many as a classic example of ineffective risk communication. The pronouncements and decisions made by government officials during the BSE controversy were perceived by many to be based on political expediency rather than on public safety concerns. Because of the BSE situation, and later the dioxin scare in Belgium, European governmental agencies are viewed as too closely linked to the industries they regulate.
This widely held view has caused a major difficulty in establishing trust on food safety issues related to agricultural biotechnology. In the absence of resolving these issues of public trust, there will be continued frustration and fear on the part of E.U. consumers as it relates to food safety. U.S. Agriculture Secretary Daniel Glickman emphasized the importance of impartial regulatory agencies in a recent address to the World Agricultural Forum and I quote, "We have to make sure that those involved in determining the safety of genetically engineered products are staying at arm's length from the people who stand to profit from them".
Development of Regulatory Policy
Because I view the trust in the regulatory framework as key to consumer's perceptions of safety, I am going to take a few minutes to review the regulatory structure in the U.S. Genetically engineered rennin, used to make cheese, recombinant BST, used to increase milk output in cattle, and the FlavrSavr tomato, an enhanced fresh market tomato, were the first foods to enter the U.S. market that were developed through genetic engineering methods. Long before these and other products of genetic engineering reached the commercial market, an extensive regulatory network was devised to oversee the experimentation and commercialization of these products. This oversight is composed of three independent agencies.
Department of Agriculture (USDA)
The USDA is entrusted with regulating the transport, growth and propagation of plants through the Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). In developing policies to govern GMOs, the USDA did not view the products of biotechnology as fundamentally different from those produced using traditional methods. Despite this view, it soon became apparent that the assessment of these new products required specific information and filing of rather extensive documentation on the crop itself, the new genetic information introduced into it and the precise manner in which field tests would be conducted.
Once this information was provided for transport or field-testing of GM plants, the information in the application was reviewed and an environmental assessment was issued that outlined the predicted environmental impact of the field test. If no significant impact was expected, the permit issued. In 1993, APHIS amended its policy to allow simple notification for six crops, corn, soybean, cotton, tomato, potato, and tobacco, because the largest number of field tests had been done with them, and none of these crops had wild relatives in the U.S. In 1997 the streamlined notification alternative was expanded to include the majority of crops in the U.S., as long as they were not noxious weeds or considered a weed in the area in which they would be released.
Over the years, the numbers of field releases has increased from 8 in 1987 to 1082 in 1998. Although the number of crops species tested in the earlier period was limited to those with high economic value, that trend in recent years has reversed with a wider variety of crops and traits being tested because of the streamlined notification process.
In the process of commercialization it is also possible for organizations to request that an article be removed from the regulatory process, or "deregulated". This occurs late in the process, following extensive examination of field testing and environmental monitoring data. At the time of deregulation an environmental assessment is published. To date 50 petitions for deregulation have been approved by APHIS.
Environmental Protection Agency
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has jurisdiction over new chemical substances being considered for introduction into the U.S. market. The government has defined all genetically modified microbes as new chemical substances, so they come under EPA's authority. This has caused the agency to be involved in the regulation of, for example, bioremediating and nitrogen-fixing microbes.
Several years ago the EPA proposed a new Plant Pesticide Rule, which holds that this agency will also regulate all plants engineered with genes for pest resistance and will designate them as pesticides. Although the comment phase for this proposed rule ended several years ago, the final publishing of the ruling has not occurred. This happened because large numbers of scientific and professional societies opposed the ruling because they found the policy scientifically indefensible for the following reasons.
Pest-resistant plants produced by genetic engineering could be indistinguishable from conventionally bred plants, but will be regulated differently.
Regulation should not focus on the means by which plants are created but on degree of risk
No scientific evidence shows that a plant's level of resistance to pests (whether a GMO or classically bred) creates hazards in the environment.
If enacted as originally proposed, the ruling would create a dangerous precedent of setting policy based on scientifically flawed principles. Leading members of the concerned scientific societies are meeting with industry leaders to try to fashion a compromise proposal, which will be presented to the EPA for consideration. In the end the agency must balance the scientific facts relating to the subject area with the opinion of the public to whom they are responsible.
Food and Drug Administration
The last agency is the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which has broad authority to regulate the introduction of new foods, whether produced conventionally or through biotechnology, and to insure their safety. Unlike the trend seen in EPA policy, the FDA holds the opinion that the process of producing the food (GMO or conventional) is not an important factor in assessing safety. Therefore in the eyes of the FDA, all foods are treated equally in terms of safety assessment.
Perhaps one of the most contentious issues the FDA must address is the labeling requirements for GM foods. This aspect of regulatory policy has been the focus of debate in the U.S. in recent times, heated debate in Europe and Japan. FDA policy guidelines state that foods produced through biotechnology will be subject to the same labeling laws as all other foods and food ingredients; their focus is on the safety of the product not the process by which it is created. To the FDA, the information on a food label should relate to the composition and attributes of the food, not to the details of the agricultural or manufacturing processes used to produce it.
It is not true, however, that no labeling will occur with GM foods. According to current policy, labeling will be required for certain foods created by biotechnology, but not simply because they were made using biotechnological procedures.
No label will be needed if the food or food product is essentially equivalent in safety, composition and nutrition to an existing food.
Products needing additional safety testing include foods with different nutritional characteristics, those containing genetic material from a known allergenic source (e.g. egg, peanut, wheat) or those having elevated levels of antinutritional or toxic compounds.
Labeling of all other foods will be voluntary.
I am aware of the debate in the E.U. relating to the precautionary principle. Certainly the definition of essential equivalence is a matter of public debate. In my opinion, however, the labeling issue for many in the U.S. and perhaps Europe is not so much of a food safety issue as it is a personal choice issue. Some consumers just want to know that they are eating something that has been genetically engineered, simply out of a right to know. Others want to use the label to identify GMOs so they can use their "economic clout" to vote against the technology.
Consumer attitudes toward labeling in the U.S. might be changing. Earlier polls showed little interest in view of their confidence in the FDA. Results of the Gallup poll presented earlier hint at this. Earlier in the year, a lobby group opposed to genetic engineering presented a petition to the federal government, containing 500,000 signatures, demanding the mandatory labeling of GM foods. As FDA policy currently stands, these reasons would not provide justification for FDAs involvement in enforcing such labeling policies. The FDA has decided to hold open regional meetings to discuss the issue of labeling with consumers and determine whether their policies will remain the same or will be modified.
If labels were required, what would they look like? Would it simply state that the food might contain GMO ingredients, as has been mandated in Australia? Would it contain detailed information about the genes used to modify the food ingredients? Would there be an effort to quantitate levels of GM ingredients in foods as has been proposed in the EU?
If the label simply states that the food might contain GMOs, this provides little useful information to the consumer related to food safety issues, if this is the intent. If it is done simply to facilitate consumer choice, this mechanism would provide the consumer with a way to use purchasing power to cast a vote in favor of or against GMO products and might be less costly.
If more extensive labeling were required that listed the genes that were introduced and their sources, the label gets more complicated and enforcement of the "truth in labeling" law becomes very problematic and very costly. Clearly, a simple fresh fruit or vegetable would require little extra work on the part of the producer to label. However, would such a label, which lists the fact that a cowpea trypsin inhibitor or bacterial alpha amylase gene is present in the product, provide useful information to the discerning consumer? It is likely that such information would be of limited value and interest to the consumer but would be very costly to the producers.
The simple situation of detailed labeling of a fresh fruit or vegetable becomes much more difficult with processed foods, such as tomato paste, peanut butter or fruit cocktail. For example, a simple bottle of tomato sauce can derive from six different varieties of tomatoes, each perhaps engineered with a couple of different genes! Having to be able to insure the accuracy of detailed labels would be extremely time-consuming and costly to food processors, requiring rDNA tests to detect the presence of the gene. It would be even more problematic, if not cost prohibitive, if quantitative assessments of each ingredient is required. In both cases, GM and non-GM foods would have to be monitored in order to assure labeling accuracy, causing costs for both types of foods to rise. Such a system also requires the establishment of a tracking system. In the U.S. with the vast quantities of maize and soybeans it would likely double the final price of the raw materials. This, according to some in the industry, would mean a 25% premium on the final cost of goods.
If the addition of the label raises the price of food significantly, I have a problem with raising the price of food for everyone, particularly if this is a freedom of choice issue and not a food safety issue, which it would be in the U.S. It seems to me that consumers wanting freedom of choice, especially when they are in the minority, should bear the cost of having desired choices available for them. Perhaps this might mean the development of a specialty market that guarantees at a price that food carrying a certain label is non-GMO. In fact, in the U.S. such a market already exists, namely certified organic foods, the USDA policy for which declares that they cannot use GMOs.
Certainly regulatory issue have been debated in developed countries, and implications for developing countries where the amount of food is more critical than its nature, especially if the issues are not related to food safety. It was recently said by the Kenyan ... "
". Recent polls of consumer opinion in countries facing critical food shortages, like China and India, show a high level of consumer support for technologies that could make a difference in their food production. It is important to keep in mind that risk/benefit analyses for different populations will dictate different decisions on food production issues.
Future of Regulatory Policy in the U.S.
Questions have been raised in the U.S. as to whether "holes" exist in the regulatory structure that would allow certain products to miss adequate scrutiny. For example, the FDA oversees the safety of genetically modified foods, but not any pesticides they express. The EPA regulates the pesticide expressed via genetic engineering, but not the genetically modified food itself. In other words, no agency has formal responsibility for assessing the genetically engineered food with (sic) the pesticide in it (The Economist 1999). The existing regulatory structure, however, insures that multiple agencies scrutinize each product and work with the interested industry partner. Inadequate testing of a product in terms of human or environmental safety is certainly not in the best economic interests of the companies.
An environmental or health safety disaster would be "deadly" for the product and for other products being developed by the private sector. This is why in the mid-1990's Pioneer Hi-Bred International halted its plans to develop a improved nutrition soybean that contained a Brazil nut protein, found to cause adverse reactions in individuals with Brazil nut allergies. One of the long-term concerns of GMOs is environmental impact, something that is extremely hard to assess in the absence of extensive field releases. Recently Agricultural Secretary Glickman has proposed the USDA will set up regional centers to do long-term environmental monitoring of GM crops in the U.S. This seems an excellent role for this agency in insuring that such monitoring is done in an impartial and scientifically defensible manner.
The first foods produced through genetic engineering technologies have been looked at very carefully by government agencies, independent health groups and consumers. The scrutiny has been unprecedented in the food sector. In fact hundreds of new foods are introduced into the U.S. market every year from other countries and receive little more than a nod from the federal agencies and no attention by consumers or the media. Once the initial, rather limited offerings of this new technology have been viewed, perhaps the success of a product will not be determined so much by positive or negative "ad campaigns" but by the desirability of the product to the producer and consumer.
In the end, consumers must make up their own minds about the acceptability and desirability of genetically engineered foods. Is a tomato genetically engineered to be sweeter still a tomato in consumers "eyes"? Is it safe? Is it a product consumers want? Should it be labeled? If consumers are satisfied with the status quo or do not believe that improvements can be made in the production, environmental impact, nutritional quality or cost/availability of food for themselves or for people worldwide, biotechnology is not likely to be appealing. If they see room for improvement and are willing to support the technologies needed to enact these changes then they should look at the opportunities and decide what criteria and regulatory structure should be used to judge these new products. Making the decision either to use or not to use these technologies has both benefits and risks. Coming to public consensus on risk to me involves individuals engaging in useful dialogue to make decisions on the desirability of the new products based on information, reason and respect for one anothers values. It should not, in my mind, be driven by the outrageous acts of those who wish to control our options as consumers by the destruction of university or private-sector research property. Risks should not be judged against an untenable zero-risk paradigm, but against the context of the risks and benefits of current technologies used for agricultural production. Benefits (or perceived benefits) should drive the technology; risks (or perceived risks) should limit its use. Ultimately the users of the technology and the consumers of its products will decide.