Is Biotechnology the Future of Food?

Why not a conference on biotechnology, but with the food industry calling the meeting to order?

By Dave Fusaro, Editor in Chief

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"The future of food" was the ambitious title of a late-November conference of the Grocery Manufacturers Assn. After writing several dispatches about the conference for our web site, newsletters and magazine (see last month's news item, "The future of food") and having had nearly two months to digest the numerous topics, I've concluded the truly audacious future of food - the sea-change, paradigm shifting, we-gotta-embrace-it-or-lose-the-opportunity future - boils down to one word: biotechnology.

Audacious is a good word to describe it, all right, because the word carries dual meanings of bold and daring but also insolent and lacking restraint.

The GMA conference specifically covered genetically modified products - in fact, a recurring speaker was Hugh Grant (no, not the actor), chairman/CEO of Monsanto Co. But most sessions concerned emerging markets such as China and India, maintaining a competitive edge, feeding the world, sustainability, obesity, health and nutrition.

All the usual suspects. It was not expressly stated at the conference nor even apparent at the time, but if there's a common thread, a common means to all those ends, it could be biotechnology.

I know there are several biotechnology conferences, and I've been to a few, but to they tend to be working meetings between various members of the supply chain. Or the subject is part of a larger conference about agriculture. To my knowledge, there hasn't been a true summit of high-level food industry executives with biotech execs, a place where this sort of discussion can be carried out in a forum–like setting but outside the eyes of the public. At least until some direction is found.

Let me get off the biotech soapbox for a moment and introduce some of the subjects that came up during "The Future of Food" conference:

  • Health and nutrition: Of course. Ubiquitous in the U.S., but the subject is just as strong in similarly developed nations and coming up fast even in lesser-developed ones. Food is obviously seen as a key means of achieving health, as well as one of the greatest contributors to poor health. One interesting concept introduced at the conference is that the food industry for years has been all about selling more for less, arguably a laudable achievement. Does the global fear of obesity shift that paradigm to selling less for more money?

    One discussion on health and nutrition segued into talk about various R&D efforts at creating healthier oils. The removal of trans fats refocused attention on this segment. Grant said Monsanto has implanted genes from algae into soybeans in Canada to increase their omega 3 content. Other refinements could reduce the negative effects of oils, especially regarding heart and vascular diseases, and possibly impart positive effects.

  • Food as a powerful national resource: If there's one thing the U.S. does more of and better than everybody else it's growing food. China already makes all our electronics and one day may be making all our cars but, I learned at a different conference last month, it has only one-third the farmable land of the U.S. Agricultural commodities (and at least the simpler processed foods) are one of our few trade surpluses.

    Several of the speakers said we've only scratched the surface of agricultural efficiency. Now, this is a potentially audacious theory (there's that word again), but what if there were ways for the U.S. to end starvation around the globe (good PR!) and to use food as a strategic weapon or bargaining chip, much as OPEC does with oil?

  • Products tailored for specific uses and individuals: Nutrigenomics and nanotechnology currently are sexy subjects. They promise to revolutionize the creation of food, especially healthier foods, especially for very specific needs and applications.

I don't want to be too obvious, but biotechnology can play some role in every one of those subjects. How safe is biotechnology? We asked the same question a few decades back about nuclear power. And like the answer to the nuclear question, it seems biotech is very safe when done properly … and hugely catastrophic if there ever is a mistake.

How much biotechnology can U.S. consumers stomach? And will Europe and the rest of the world ever embrace it?

There are animal and crop improvements that consumers (at least those in America) appear ready to embrace, especially if they don't know about them. There is no labeling required and no test that can find traces of synthetic bovine growth hormone in milk produced by cows injected with the stuff, so that issue has never really exploded in the dairy aisle. And if genetically grafted traits protect crops from weeds and bugs, farmers seem to be happy and American consumers seem oblivious.

But what about the kind of genetic tinkering that apparently requires a marketing plan? How will Americans take to genetic modifications (merely) to increase yields (and lower prices)? Will the rest of the world be persuaded by nutritious, abundant and inexpensive grains that fight global starvation? How about producing oil seeds that have lower fats, maybe even the inclusion of omega-3 fatty acids or other positive traits?

It's a heavy subject with a lot of heavy questions, some of which I know people already are pondering. But if there can be a "future of food" conference, why not one on how much biotechnology, and what kinds, does the American food industry want? But with the food industry calling the meeting to order.

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