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Thomas Hoban: Change of heart

(Thursday, Sept. 23, 2004 -- CropChoice news) -- North Carolina State University professor of sociology and anthropology Thomas Hoban describes himself as, at one point, being "caught up" in the enthusiasm over agricultural biotechnology -- the logical next step in a long line of technical innovations in farming.

Now, he's a bit uneasy about it.

"The technology is becoming more complex. We are making changes to plants that will have impact the human diet," he says. "The first crops were designed to impact farmers by saving them money and time. These new products will have direct impact on people. We need more regulation -- not less -- of the emerging products that are designed to be active in the human body."

Hoban's main concern is that strong regulatory programs in the US have been short-changed by the current Bush administration. "They have gone back to [an] approach of 'taking the shackles off the industry.' The FDA ignored the consensus recommendation from their 1999 public hearings to require the biotechnology industry to simply notify the FDA before they release a new product [leaving such notification voluntary.]"

This summer, Hoban warned the USDA's Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture that biopharming and transgenic animals could cause consumers to rally against all food biotechnology because more and more consumers believe potential risks aren't being discussed openly.

"As the technology jumps from being fairly simplistic, adding a single gene to a plant, to basically reshaping plants at will, we have to start getting more open with the public," he says. "The more we use [the technology] and the more complicated it gets, there are going to be greater risks."

Hoban's connection to agriculture began in childhood playing on neighbor's farms outside Chicago. In 1970, he entered the University of Colorado to study ecology, but was having so much fun with the hippie lifestyle he was asked to leave school.

Four years later, Hoban got serious, enrolled in the University of Illinois and earned an undergraduate degree in biology in 1978. In 1986, he earned a doctorate in rural sociology from Iowa State University. Soon after, he took his current position at North Carolina State University studying how people respond to change and to new technologies.

For 15 years, Hoban has kept his finger on the pulse of public acceptance of biotechnology. In 1989, he conducted a survey for the North Carolina Biotech Center to find out how the public viewed biotechnology. Shortly after that, he began speaking around the country to actively endorse the benefits of agricultural biotechnology. "I was fairly excited about the potential," Hoban says.

When the Europeans began making loud noises against the technology, Hoban initially laughed them off. "I thought look at how silly these Europeans are. They don't understand the benefits our farmers are receiving," he says.

Four years ago, Hoban's views began to shift as he took a more critical look at several of the surveys he had conducted. While most of them showed consumers had a favorable opinion of agbiotech, Hoban believes the surveys didn't tell the whole story.

"We were consistently finding 65 to 70 percent of Americans were answering positively to questions such as do you believe there is a benefit from it. Most of them thought it was a good idea," Hoban says. "But, in retrospect, they were answering based on little awareness and knowledge. We were asking people to speculate on things they really didn't know anything about."

He began focusing more on the sizeable "minority" expressing opposition to agricultural biotech. "Polls may show that two out of three express support for biotech. That also means one quarter oppose it and 10 percent don't have an opinion," he points out. "In this country, at least 25 percent of people have always been negative. That number has jumped in recent years."

Hoban believes the minority should be taken more seriously because they tend to be more educated about the issue and more politically active. Many of them have already dropped out of the traditional farming food chain and buy organic.

Hoban is worried about how little people know about the technology. "Polls still show the vast majority of American consumers do not understand that they already have been eating genetically engineered foods," he notes. "When they find out, they resent the fact that no one told them scientists were changing their food."

To some degree Hoban believes crop and agricultural scientists, who actively support the technology, made the mistake of dismissing the public in a case of "scientist knows best."

"However, when consumers are nervous, food companies get nervous," Hoban says. "Agriculture still doesn't get it that the rules have changed. They no longer call the shots, Walmart does!"

Hoban believes the potential for cross contamination of GM crops designed to make pharmaceuticals with conventional food crops could prove devastating to consumer trust in the food supply.

"The bottom line is that the food retailers, processors, and others have gone on record that food crops should not be used to produce pharmaceuticals," he says. "You probably don't want that stuff in food. You don't want to be the food company identified as having plastic or pig vaccines in your corn flakes."

Hoban thinks the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture need to be informing people more and should require companies to disclose if their products contained GM products.

"The FDA practices of voluntary pre-market notification and substantial equivalence are no longer valid," Hoban maintains. "It is time for the US to learn from the EU about regulation."

For more information, visit Thomas Hoban's web page at http://www4.ncsu.edu/~hobantj/