This year’s BIO International Convention last week in Chicago addressed many of the current and future challenges facing the biotech industry.

Perhaps no such issue is as polarizing or controversial as genetically modified organisms (GMOs), or organisms that have had DNA molecules from different sources combined into a single molecule, creating a new set of genes. The controversial issue was the subject of a panel entitled, “The Straight Story on Biotech in Agriculture: The Media and its Impact on Consumers.”

The North Carolina Biotechnology Center hosted a free public gathering for viewing a live webcast of the discussion. The webcast, part of the Food Dialogues series coordinated by the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance, featured a panel including consumers, farmers, media and experts from industry and academia discussing some of the toughest questions surrounding the use of GMOs in food production

Media Coverage

Moderated by CNBC analyst Ron Insana, the panel included Bob Goldberg, Ph.D., UCLA plant molecular biologist, Emily Anthes, science journalist, Jerry Slocum, Mississippi soybean farmer, Melinda Hemmelgarn, registered dietician and radio host, Mike Olson, radio host, Pam Johnson, Iowa corn farmer and Steve Smith, chairman of

Insana began the discussion by asking whether or not agricultural biotechnology is portrayed accurately and sufficiently in the media. “There’s one particular development and it’s covered a very narrow way,” said Anthes. “What we’re really lacking is when the dust settles from a single study, to then take a nuanced look at the research. But when that study isn’t in the headlines anymore, there isn’t a nuanced reporting that follows.”

The media has changed drastically over the last two to three decades, suggested Hemmelgarn, that news has to be tailor-made to fit into the short sound bites and succinct headlines that capture people’s attention. A story or issue that involves decades of research and tests, such as the safety of GMOs, she suggested, is doomed to receive little or no coverage in the media.

Panelists Debate

The panelists then moved on to the core of the argument over GMOs, debating whether they were truly safe and free of unintended consequences that might only be fully recognized years down the road.

“What’s really sold to consumers is that these crops are untried and untested. That’s just false,” said Anthes. “There have been 600 studies at last count, and a third were independently funded. So that’s 200, at the very least. The European Union has funded research for 25 years on these crops. The notion that there’s no data is not true. When people say, ‘I don’t want these products in the market because they’re untested,’ that’s the most pervasive myth.”

The debate reached a noticeable level of tension when Hemmelgarn suggested people unwilling to risk health concerns should eat strictly organically-grown products. “They are independently certified. They do not spray their crops with glyphosate,” she said. “GM products are not allowed. I recommend people at high risk–children, women of child bearing age–that they choose an organic diet because it exposes them to lower risk.”

Those comments were met with great resistance by several of the other panelists. “There is no fact to support you making the recommendation that pregnant women eat only organic,” said Goldberg, who works in genetic modification. “I’ve never heard so much non-scientific nonsense. What we have been trying to do in the laboratory has been done in a very serious and concerted way. Every single, solitary scientific organization has deemed these products safe for human consumption.”

N.C. a Leader in AgBio

North Carolina holds an increasingly dominant position in agricultural biotechnology.

The state has some 80 ag biotech companies employing more than 7,700 people. NCBiotech’s AgBiotech Group is working to expand this important sector statewide, developing synergy among universities, startup companies and the global R&D hubs of giants such as BASF, Syngenta (dedicating its new $72 million R&D Facility on May 17), Bayer CropScience, Novozymes and DuPont Pioneer.

Several of the state’s young ag biotech companies have made news recently, including Advanced Animal Diagnostics, BioResource International and AgBiome.

Other key points:

  • Agriculture brings $77 billion to the state’s GDP every year. That’s 17 percent of the state’s $440 billion gross domestic product in 2011, the most recent year available
  • 638,000 people – about 17 percent of the state’s workforce – work in agriculture
  • The wholesale value of North Carolina’s nursery crops alone exceeded $1 billion in 2006
  • NCBiotech has provided $13.98 million in ag biotech grants and loans
  • NCBiotech has made more than 170 grants for agriculturally related university research
  • NCBiotech has made 34 loans or grants totaling $2.6 million to agricultural and nutraceutical companies
  • These companies have secured nearly $800 million in follow-on funding from other sources, more than $305 for each dollar invested
  • NCBiotech’s North Carolina Biotechnology Crop Commercialization Center has contributed to a 31 percent increase in the state’s sorghum yield
  • NCBiotech maintains the Agricultural Bioscience Company and Entrepreneurial Profile System (AgBIOCEPS) database of entrepreneurial ag biotech companies in North Carolina seeking investment and partnerships, showcasing their technologies in animals, crops, forestry and marine sectors
  • North Carolina’s two land-grant universities, NC State University and NC A&T University both have an active ag research community.
  • Wide-ranging research and field trials are conducted at 18 research stations statewide
  • Vibrant tissue culture and micropropagation facilities, including the nation’s first Associate’s Degree program in agricultural biotechnology with a micropropagation focus, at Southeastern Community College in Whiteville

 (C) NC Biotechnology Center