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The Council for Biotechnology Information's New Chief Explores Issues and Obstacles to Gaining Public Acceptance of Biotech Products

Editor's Note: The controversy surrounding the growing of crops produced with seeds containing special genetic material -- oftentimes called genetically modified organisms or GMOs -- has been brewing for several years. Whether the continent has been Europe, Japan or the Americas, one thing is certain -- the issue has caused the companies in the business of producing genetically modified seeds great consternation. One measure taken by these companies about a year ago was to form a biotechnology organization to "market" information about biotechnology to consumers. That organization is the Council for Biotechnology Information (CBI), based in Washington, D.C., which opened "for business" in April 2000.

Selected to head this information-providing organization was longtime Cargill public affairs expert Linda Thrane. This month, in the first of a two-part series, our Thinking Outside the Box column does its own thinking outside the box by interviewing Thrane about her plans for the group. Next month we'll continue that interview, focusing on plans for 2001 from a marketing standpoint.

Thrane was only on the job a few months when this interview was conducted at her home in Independence, Minn. She speaks candidly about her plans, what CBI hopes to accomplish for its member companies, and her marketing strategies to get consumers to think more favorably about biotechnology and its immense possibilities for doing good in the world.

AM: Does CBI have a board of directors?

LT: CBI raised the curtain in April 2000, so it's a very young organization. My board is basically the companies that are doing the research, development and marketing of biotech products. We've got Dow AgroSciences, DuPont, Monsanto, Syngenta, BASF, Bayer and Aventis.

LT: You're kind of looking at it. Right now I'm just working very hard to build partnerships. I hope to have a staff of three by the end of the year. (Editor's Note: The council has hired BSMG to help with its communications efforts.)

AM: What's your connection with the Biotechnology Industry Organization?

LT: The seven companies mentioned earlier sponsor my group--the Council for Biotechnology Information. We're designed to help various audiences better understand ag and food biotech and what it means to their lives. It's a very clear education/communication issue. Because we're a small organization with a big mandate, shall we say, we're housed within the Biotechnology Industry Organization. That group serves the entire range of the biotech industry, including the medical side, for instance. It also has a lobbying presence in Washington.

AM: What attracted you to this position after nine years at Cargill?

LT: My husband should be here for this -- his eyes would just roll. I have a history doing things like this. It was kind of a progression. When I started as an editorial writer at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the editorial board was very urban oriented. I asked if I could look at agricultural issues. They said, "Go away, fine, don't bother us."

I found that some horrendous agricultural and economic policies had just crushed American export competitiveness. I dove in and that took me to farm policy and trade issues, which took me to Third World development and other food and hunger issues. As an editorial writer on these issues, I found that Cargill was thinking bigger than its bottom line. I developed a healthy respect for its approach to business. So when the opportunity arose, I decided to put my money where my mouth -- or typewriter -- was and went to Cargill.

At Cargill I worked with farmers and the food industry. We were very much touched by biotechnology from the producer side and then the food side. My boss asked me to look into what it meant. Cargill knew this was going to be big and that we'd better get involved. I went in, I looked at it and I looked at the regulatory approval process -- FDA, USDA, EPA -- which was comprehensive and sound.

Overall, I saw this as a situation where we could reduce the use of farm chemicals, and we could produce more food and more nutritious food. I concluded that Cargill ought to support this. We ought to be able to accept the end product at our elevators and other facilities and serve as leaders in the industry for the cause.

Agriculture needs new tools to feed a growing population. This is in some ways a make-or-break issue for agriculture in general. So that, in turn, attracted me to the CBI challenge.

AM: What kind of a time frame are you looking at to accomplish what you need to regarding the dissemination of information about biotech?

LT: It's supposed to be a three- to five-year gig. That's one reason I'm going to keep the organization very small and tight.

AM: Do all the companies funding the organization contribute at the same level?

LT: Because the market's so new, there's a formula used to determine contributions by the various companies.

AM: What have you been doing in these first few months, especially with something so brand new like this?

LT: I'm trying to get my arms around CBI and understand what was done before I came. There's been a lot of real sweat equity from the company people.

In 2000 a lot of our public relations work was aimed at what the group identified as the opinion leaders who read newspapers, watch TV news, those who have some influence in their communities. A lot of it was aimed at that audience, and that's why you saw, for instance, some national advertising on the Sunday morning news talk shows.

AM: What's the main message for your most important audiences?

LT: That biotechnology is the next generation of breakthrough agricultural technology and has the ability to feed a hungry world with better food and to help protect the natural resource base on which agriculture depends. We have to send a signal to the rest of the food industry that the biotech companies are willing to stand up and defend this technology against the attacks of opponents who may be willing to use misinformation and bully tactics to scare people about it. Our print and broadcast campaigns are aimed at education.

AM: Who's the enemy here in terms of what went wrong with the introduction of biotechnology to consumers?

LT: Ignorance is the enemy. The technology is proven. The products have been thoroughly tested and researched more than any other products. But organizations opposed to biotechnology prey on the fears of consumers.

AM: You do a lot of polling. What are some of the results through 2000?

LT: Polling over the years has shown that people are more afraid of foodborn illnesses and things like that. These are areas where this technology can have a positive effect. Our polling and consulting with consumers shows people will support biotechnology if we give them the proper information. Our job is to not let ignorance be utilized by opponents to destroy the good biotechnology does for the world.

AM: Is that what went wrong?

LT: First of all, a lot went right--let's start from that premise. These companies have made huge investments in the technology. And, for the most part, farmers readily adopted these products. Why did farmers adopt them? Because they see the benefits. But the urban population has very little sense of how food is produced.

We understand that today's farmers are very wise. They watch every cent; they watch every crop input. Farmers adopted biotechnology because they saw that it is good for their land -- they get a good crop.

Primarily things went wrong in Europe. Studies have shown there's a fundamental difference in Europe regarding government. People trust our regulatory agencies here. People in the U.S. tend to trust science and technology more. And so they're more accepting of it. They're interested in things that can bring new and better foods into the grocery stores.

It's a different climate in Europe that fed the uproar we saw. There's more of a tendency to listen to green groups. And I'm sure mad cow disease in the 1990s had something to do with the negative climate for biotechnology today.

The press is less objective and balanced in Europe as well. Generally the U.S. press has been quite balanced and done a better job of informing people about the pros and cons of biotech.

Den Gardner owns Gardner & Gardner Communications, New Prague, Minn.
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Author:Gardner, Den
Publication:Agri Marketing
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2001

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