Biotech conference discusses future of agriculture

Elizabeth Polsdofer

The future of the agricultural industry as well as discussions on how organic-only farms can coexist with farms that use genetically modified crops were on the table at the Agricultural Biotechnology Regulation, Trade and Coexistence Conference.

The conference was held on Wednesday at the Gateway Hotel and Conference Center in Ames.

The conference included experts in the organic and traditional farming industries, regulation leaders and academics who study genetically modified crops.

Among those attending were Gregory Jaffe, director of the biotechnology project for the Center for Science in the Public Interested, a non-profit organization in D.C., that focuses on education regarding the agricultural and food industries.

“When I come to Iowa State, I like to meet with academics and others to learn about the research they’re doing and to understand their perspective on these issues as well as figure out what information they have,” Jaffe said. “I try to bring a policy perspective here from Washington about how others might view how these crops are used.”

Jeffrey Wolt, professor in agronomy at Iowa State and an active researcher with Biosafety Institute for Genetically Modified Agricultural Products, explained it is important to discuss the issues.

“We feel that it’s very important in the state of Iowa where there is so much production of genetically modified crops that we do a good job of discussing all of the issues that surround it,” Wolt said. “[We are] trying to understand both as the science in relation to the policy made.”

Wolt said that the rapid advances in biotechnology are a challenge because the rate at which regulation policies can be made is much slower than the advances in biotechnology.

“There’s a lot of new innovations that are going to be available in coming years and how that impacts the way they’re regulated because biotechnology is changing so quickly that the way it’s regulated has to keep up with it,” Wolt said. “That’s a hard thing.”

Regulating new biotechnology is just one of the many challenges the conference hoped to address. The business side of farming and changes in technology is a key point for many attendees of the conference.

“If you’re a small farmer in Iowa and you want to make a good living by, say, selling an organic production which is going to have high value we need to make sure that can be done, that there’s the ability to do that,” Wolt said.

In addition to discussing policies with academics who have spent time researching genetically modified crops and gaining new perspectives in different agricultural industries, Jaffe said that education for a lay audience is priority.

“I think one of my goals in these conferences as well as just generally in my job is to educate the press, educate the public, educate policy makers about what the real facts out there are,” Jaffe said. “There’s a lot of misinformation out there.”