It may be hard to believe, but biotechnology isn’t always well understood. And that lack of understanding sometimes turns into active opposition that can block the sale of U.S. soy in some countries.
The farmer-leaders of the United Soybean Board (USB) identified biotechnology as a priority in 2009, as new biotech varieties inched closer to commercialization. That’s how the checkoff’s Biotechnology Initiative came about.
“It all comes down to education,” says USB farmer-leader Richard Fordyce, a soybean farmer in Bethany, Mo. “Around 12 new biotech events are expected to be approved in the next five to seven years, bringing significant value to U.S. soybean farmers,” he says. “It’s important everyone understands biotech is safe.”
Here are the primary educational programs of the initiative:
Touching the Future The farmer-leaders plant acceptance of biotechnology by helping science teachers bring the best information available to their students. This has included participating in the last two National Science Teachers Association annual conferences. In 2011 alone, this program reached some 700 science teachers, school administrators and college-level teaching instructors by passing out free, classroom-ready lesson plans and publicizing the initiative’s comprehensive website, www.GetBiotechSmart.com.
Influencing the Influencers One group that holds significant sway over others is journalists. That’s where Biotech U comes in. The day-and-a-half seminar, held for the last two years at the nationally ranked University of Missouri-Columbia School of Journalism, involves hands-on instruction about DNA extraction, a tour of the university’s Bradford Research and Extension Center and a panel journalists discussing the challenges of reporting on the technology fairly. The program is capped by a reporting competition, in which participating students submit reports on biotechnology, and the winner gets an all-expenses-paid trip to an international biotechnology conference. This year’s winner, Lydia Mulvany, traveled to a biotech conference in Turkey, and sent back two reports to all USB farmer-leaders that were posted on the main USB website.
Educating Regulators Regulators are critical in helping to shape bio-safety regulation in countries around the world. That’s where the initiative’s Agricultural Biotechnology Regulation Immersion course comes in. Some 22 international regulators participated in the first session in 2009, where they were immersed in classroom work and in practical activities such as visiting labs and seeing crops under development. The next session, planned for August, has so far attracted 44 applicants from 20 countries.
Reaching the Public At Large Reaching out to the public at large also serves as a critical step in planting positive information about biotechnology. Since research shows that more and more people are getting their information online, the initiative has taken steps to spread the word on the Internet by participating in two websites: www.AcademicsReview.org and www.GMO-Compass.org. Academics Review publishes the detailed research of two eminent academic leaders who defend biotechnology. GMO Compass is a highly visible biotechnology-related website that posts credible science as well as popular articles about biotechnology from a variety of sources globally. The checkoff’s support will mean the site can post even more.
Looking Ahead Typically, USB special initiatives, which address short-term opportunities or challenges, ‘sunset’ after three years. Fordyce says that when that happens in 2013, the work of the soybean checkoff supporting biotechnology will continue. “USB will not finish working for the acceptance of biotechnology until U.S. soybean farmers are able to access any market in the world,” Fordyce says. “We’ve come a long way in reaching people, but there is always more to do.”