Biotech companies unite to promote the safety of their new crops.

In an effort to combat misinformation and help ensure that genetically engineered crops get a fair hearing in public debate, a newly formed Council for Biotechnology Information just kicked off a three- to five-year public information program in the U.S. and Canada.

A pledge of $50 million from the council's seven founding members is funding a communications program that includes grassroots local programs, a Web site, a toll-free information line, brochures, and national television, magazine and newspaper advertising. Aventis CropScience (formerly AgrEvo and Rhone-Poulenc), BASF, Dow AgroSciences, Dupont, Monsanto, Novartis, Zeneca Ag Products and the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) formed this coalition to provide information - based on scientific research, expert opinion and published reports - to the public about the potential benefits of the technology.

Timely or late? "Clearly, our industry should have reacted before this, but we're out of the starting blocks now with this effort," says Dan Eramian, council spokesperson from BIO. "We must overcome the misinformation being spread, and share the potential this technology holds with the public."

Jeff Bergau, Monsanto spokesperson, thinks that this effort is timely. "There is a very low awareness of biotechnology among consumers," he says. "We've seen that consumers are more likely to support biotechnology if they have more information about it. And the goal of these efforts by the council will help consumers educate themselves."

Several core beliefs drive the council's biotechnology information initiative. The council believes that biotechnology is safe because it is extensively researched and reviewed and is subject to rigorous government regulation. Biotechnology products are tested more thoroughly than conventional crops before they ever come to market. The council believes that all foods, including those derived through genetic modification, should continue to be subject to a rigorous government regulatory process that evaluates the safety of the products to the consumer and the environment. This process should be based on responsible science that meets state-of-the-art scientific standards. The council believes that biotechnology can deliver significant benefits for consumers who seek better-quality, better-tasting and more nutritious foods; for farmers who want more efficient methods to grow crops with less impact on the environment; and for developing countries seeking ways to help feed a growing population.

Supporting the technology. BIO's Eramian says that while some aspects of the program are still being formulated, many key elements are already in place. Television advertising, designed to raise awareness about biotechnology and direct people to sources for more information, began in early April. Print advertising will follow in the coming months. The council's Web site features facts and information about biotechnology, including data from a variety of sources, a discussion of benefits, links to other academic, government and scientific organization sites, and third-party opinions and referrals. Other information coming to the Web site includes safety data on commercial biotech products, white papers and a sponsorship of a university-managed Web site containing scientific data. Consumers also can call a toll-free phone number at the council to obtain a free brochure entitled Good Ideas Are Growing.

The council also plans to implement an outreach program in the near future to establish a dialogue with the food industry, health professionals, academia, scientists and other interested parties.

"We want growers to know we're working diligently to give people information on biotechnology and share with them how important this technology is to farmers," Bergau says. "When we tell consumers that some crops from biotechnology can reduce the amount of pesticides applied, they understand the benefit immediately."

For more information, contact the Council for Biotechnology Information at 800/980-8660.

Feed industry effort. The American Feed Industry Association (AFIA) also has a plan to provide biotechnology information to consumers. It has compiled a new Food Safety Leadership Plan to convey its positions on food safety issues related to the feed industry. Included in the packet is a four-part biotechnology question-and-answer series about present and future benefits of biotechnology, regulatory requirements, and food safety and labeling concerns; speeches about biotechnology and feed industry issues; quotes and opinions; and a white paper on food biotechnology.

The packet is being distributed to association member companies, ag organizations, key legislators and the general public on request. For more information, call AFIA at 703/524-0810.