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December 30, 2013

Defined by critics, big ag restarts conversation

(Continued)

Makers of the engineered seeds and the farmers and retailers who use them stayed largely silent, even as critics put forth a simple, persuasive argument: Consumers have a right to know if they are eating genetically modified foods.

Modified seeds are now used to grow almost all of the nation’s corn and soybean crops, most of which are turned into animal feed.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a well-known critic of food companies and artificial and unhealthy ingredients in foods, has not opposed genetically modified foods, on the basis that there’s no evidence they are harmful.

Still, director Michael Jacobson says, the issue has taken on a life of its own to the general public.

Companies like Monsanto Corp. “try to argue back with facts, but emotions often trump facts,” Jacobson says. “They are faced with a situation where critics have an emotional argument, a fear of the unknown.”

Perhaps no one understands this dynamic better than Robert Fraley, who was one of the first scientists to genetically modify seeds and now is executive vice president and chief technology officer of Monsanto. He says the company was late to the public relations game as critics worked to vilify it, even holding marches on city streets to protest Monsanto by name.

Fraley says he has spent “more than a few nights” thinking about the company’s image problem. He says Monsanto always thought of itself as the first step in the chain and has traditionally dealt more with farmers than consumers.

About a year ago, in an attempt to dispel some of the criticism, the company started addressing critics directly and answering questions through social media and consumer outreach. The company is also reaching out to nutritionists and doctors, people whom consumers may consult. Fraley is personally tweeting — and, like Hasheider, he says it’s something he never would have thought about doing just a few years ago.

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