AMES - Agriculture could learn a lot from Apple and its revolutionary iPhones and iPads. Consumer demand for these products has been extraordinary, says an investment banker and business consultant, who notes that this stands in sharp contrast to the public's response to genetically modified traits.
"Apple created simplicity out of complexity, and this prompted consumers to say, 'I want that,'" said Sano Shimoda, president and founder of BioScience Securities in Venice, Calif. "In hindsight, that's what the biotechnology industry should have done."
While the commercialization of genetically modified traits like herbicide tolerance and insect resistancebegan to revolutionize agriculture 15 years ago, he said, it opened a Pandora's box of controversy that has not gone away.
-Messenger photo by Darcy Dougherty Maulsby
During an April 18 presentation in Ames, Sano Shimoda, right, president and founder of California-based BioScience Securities, said the use of advanced plant breeding technologies to increase crop yields could lead to potential “Pandora’s box” surprises in agriculture.
In part, this can be attributed to the fact that genetically modified traits were farmer-driven, not consumer-driven, Shimoda said, who spoke at Iowa State University's Biosafety Institute for Genetically Modified Agricultural Products conference on April 18 in Ames.
While this farmer focus made sense from a business standpoint for the companies supplying the traits, it created many challenges that continue to affect the ag industry. Addressing these challenges will be important as biotechnology helps break new yield barriers in corn and other key crops, said Shimoda.
"Agriculture has failed to develop an Apple strategy that aligned farmers and consumers" Shimoda said. "Genetically modified traits could be a much smaller issue if consumers can see a key tangible benefit."
Lessons from a tomato
Had the FLAVR SAVR tomato been successful in the 1990s, the public's perception of genetically modified traits would likely be much different today, said Shimoda, a former Wall Street market analyst.
The FLAVR SAVRwas the first genetically engineered crop to be commercialized and promised the best of all worlds, from superior shipping traits to exceptional flavor. FLAVR SAVR tomatoes offered significant improvements over normal tomatoes that are grown commercially, which cannot be allowed to ripen on the vine because they soften during the ripening process.
Picking conventional tomatoes while they are still hard allows them to be shipped, but it also prevents the development of natural flavors.
Enter the FLAVR SAVR tomato, which could fully ripen on the vine and develop a more homegrown flavor, then hold its quality during shipping.
The introduction of the FLAVR SAVR tomato into the market in the mid-1990s sparked controversy and consumer resistance, however, driven by the public's misperceptions and fears about "mutant vegetables." While the FLAVR SAVR's parent company conducted extensive safety and environmental impact tests under the scrutiny of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, this failed to assure the public that the FLAVR SAVR was safe to eat.
While this GMO tomato floundered, consumer demand for other products, such as organic food, began to grow. Although organic items comprise only 4 percent of all the food sold in the U.S. today, sales continue to soar. In fact, organic food sales topped $27 billion in 2010, which marked an increase of 8 percent over 2009, Shimoda said. Consumers are flocking to stores like Whole Foods to buy organic, he added.
"We have a Whole Foods store in Venice, Calif., that's bigger than Walmart, and you can hardly find a parking space."
Can consumers' perceptions be changed?
While the FLAVR SAVR tomato failed to capture consumers' imaginations - and their hard-earned food dollars - is it too late to influence people's attitudes about technology in agriculture and food production? Shimoda doesn't think so.
The magic could happen with advanced plant breeding technologies, such as marker-assisted selection, that access natural trait diversity.
"Historically, the success of conventional plant breeding has been based on narrowing the genetic diversity within elite germplasm," he said. "Now, there's a growing realization that one way to develop a broad spectrum of yield-increasing traits rests on harnessing the diversity of native traits in broad germplasm pools."
Shimoda believes that growing competition in organic and conventional markets may drive producers to native traits as a product differentiator.
"Consumer-driven demand for native trait-based product differentiation could align farmers and consumers," Shimoda said, "and ultimately blur the distinction between genetically modified traits and native traits."
The use of advanced plant breeding technologies to increase crop yields could also lead to another potential Pandora's box surprise, Shimoda said, who believes that agriculture could face potential crop surpluses in the years ahead.
"My view is that the world will feed itself."
Consider the tremendous increase in corn yields outside the United States in the last 10 years, said Shimoda, who cited technology adoption, improved farm managementand the impact of expanding economic growth in developing economies. "I predict that we'll have lots of corn in the years ahead, even though it won't happen overnight.
"This power of the supply side could lead to a downward trend in U.S. crop prices and farmland values."
The one thing that's certain is that markets won't stand still, especially in today's global economy, Shimoda said. "At the end of the day, the consumer is right. That's what drives the marketplace."
You can contact Darcy Dougherty Maulsby by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.