Biotechnology debate just beginning Any wishful thinking that the controversy swirling worldwide around genetically engineered crops would subside anytime soon were definitely dashed at the American Seed Trade Association's 117th annual convention in San Francisco.

There was hope at least that the emotionally charged issue would not explode in the U.S. as it has in Europe, but speakers at ASTA left no doubt that likely will not occur. A consortium of major players in the biotech industry has banded together to try and stop the bleeding in America before the industry is declared dead on arrival.

The notion that the controversy is far from subsiding was brought home by an article in the San Francisco Chronicle on the same day that ag biotechnology was spotlighted at ASTA. The story related an effort by Bay Area radical environmental groups - spearheaded by Greenpeace - to urge all city departments to give preferential treatment to organic food vendors when the city awards catering contracts for special parties and events.

That's nothing new, but the focal point of the effort was not anti-pesticides, as would be expected in ultra liberal San Francisco, but on genetically modified food or "Frankenfood." Although the term "organic" implies no pesticide use, the word pesticide was not even in the article.

A man who once was executive director of Greenpeace International, Paul Gilding, captivated ASTA members with his past, present and future scenario of the ag biotech issue. An Australian, Gilding has since 1995 headed his own company, Ecos, which advises leading international and Australian corporations on environmental issues.

He said the leaders of Greenpeace in the United Kingdom are stunned by their success in turning back genetically modified crops. Two and a half years ago Gilding said those same leaders expected to lose the battle against biotechnology.

Gilding said the success of the radical movement could be laid at the failure of the biotech industry in understanding the mentality toward food and health issues of Europeans. He cited the mad cow disease; tainted blood supplies in France; Dutch pig plague; the dioxin crisis in Belgium and the Belgium Coca Cola crisis.

When American corporations proclaim Europeans' fears of biotechnology are unfounded, "that may not be the way to proceed" in introducing technology to Europeans.

He got no argument from Ted McKinney, global leader for biotechnology public affairs for Dow AgroSciences, who said, "shame on us as an industry for not understanding the magnitude of the biotechnology issue."

McKinney is also interim executive director of the Biotechnology Information Council, a multi-million-dollar effort to extol the benefits to the American consumer and hopefully head off a repeat what has happened in Europe where products from genetically modified crops are basically banned.

It has been such a disaster that McKinney said the biotech industry has basically given up on Europe. "It will take many years for biotech to make a comeback in Europe," he said.

The next biotech chapters will be played out in three very diverse regions of the world, the U.S., China and India.

The U.S. because this is where two-thirds of the world's biotech resources are being focused. Eight percent of the world's biotech dollars are invested in the U.S. and more than three-fourths of the world's field testing is being done here.

It is centered in the U.S. because this is where the majority of the world's seed breeders are located, and America affords the greatest intellectual property rights protection for companies investing millions in this new technology.

Gilding predicted acceptance of ag biotechnology would be a "long bloody battle" in the U.S.

While GMOs are basically banned in Europe and in trouble in the U.S., China is "rushing ahead" with it. There are more than 140 labs and more than one million acres devoted to genetically modified crops today in China. China's plan, according to Gilding, is to have more than half its crops in genetically modified crops within five to 10 years.

China represents a huge business opportunity for ag biotech companies, but it will not come without concerns about preserving intellectual property rights and the safe use of genetically modified crops.

India, said Gilding, will be the pivotal point about the future of biotechnology in all developing nations. There are those who want to drive the "evil" of biotechnology from India and "torch Monsanto," the leading ag biotechnology firm in the world.

Others believe biotechnology can feed the millions in India and contribute to the health of that nation.

"India will be the battleground of what will happen in other developing countries," Gilding predicted.

Ag biotech is a "very powerful, scientifically credible technology," said Gilding. Even its opponents recognize that. Controversy swirls around who will control and regulate that technology. There is a growing public distrust of big business and the government's inability to regulate are what's feeding the ag biotech controversy, he said.

Gaining the trust of American and Canadian consumers is the goal of the biotechnology information council's $50 million effort. McKinney said the effort would be a candid one steeped in honesty and not some "slick PR effort."

It will focus on consumer concerns in an attempt to increase public acceptance and trust of ag biotechnology. It will be a three- to five-year effort, predicted McKinney.

The message will have three basic tenants: ag biotechnology can provide safe food by reducing pesticide use; it can help feed a growing and hungry world and make food healthier.

It will not target farmers. It will target consumers and community "influencers," those people whose opinions are valued in communities.

There is a toll free number: 800-980-8660 and a Website; www.whybiotech.com. for those who have questions.

Gilding says the GMO debate is only the beginning of a changing attitude toward food. In his "Genie out of the Bottle" presentation, he said the controversy swirling about ag biotech will spill over into total food production.