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Ag Biotech: Going on the Offense

April 24, 2013
On Wednesday at the BIO International Convention a panel called “Going on the Offense: Proactive Strategies to Reduce Uncertainty” focused on challenges facing agricultural biotech in the social media and regulatory worlds. Moderated by Peter Whitfield of Baker Hostetler, the panelists included David Bartlett of Levick and Geri Edens and Christopher Marraro, both of Baker Hostetler.

Peter opened up the discussion by involving the audience in an interactive poll to determine their willingness to eat genetically engineered (GE) salmon or use GE insulin to treat diabetes. The salmon question garnered a 57 percent yes vote while 96 percent of the audience said they'd be willing to use GE insulin if necessary. In many audiences, this discrepancy would have been even wider and that has a lot to do with the digital and social media world.

David added that the key reason for the discrepancy comes down to benefits. He noted that it is a well-established principle of risk communication that risk is perceived far greater than it is understood. If you can associate a clear benefit to whatever the risk may be, however, it turns the risk around and fear plummets. People are much more willing to accept risks if they are associated with a clear benefit. The problem with biotech in agriculture is that until recently, benefits did not accrue directly to consumers, so it was very easy for anti-GE activists to generate and play to the irrational fear that GMOs are unsafe. This has plagued communications about biotech since the very beginning, he said.

David emphasized that ag biotech companies need to engage to change the tide on social media. The companies were busy arguing the science and winning that battle while losing the war in the social media world where people aren't so worried about science and are easily scared. Now it’s time to engage, play the game and own the terms just as those in anti-technology groups have done for years. If you can reasonably anticipate that you'll be hit with something, control the negative terms as well as the positive. It can't be ignored. Social media is ubiquitous. Everybody is on it. It's there all the time and it's the first place many go for info. That's what makes it important. "There is no longer a choice,” he said. “You've got to be there and you've got to be there in a sophisticated way."

Geri echoed the importance of engagement for success in navigating the U.S. regulatory process. She discussed how an applicant can take proactive steps to reduce the likelihood that a challenge will be made or make sure if there is one, that the agency ruling will hold up in court. Engage. Provide the agency with everything it needs. Have a good understanding of what makes your trait or product different from others that have gone through the process and what questions or issues that may raise. Figure out who your opponents are going to be.

It’s all in the preparation. Be upfront and try to create a good working relationship with the agency. “Staying on top of issues and creating that good record of information is the most important thing you can do,” she added.

Christopher built on Geri’s discussion by giving an overview of ways to exploit developments in biotech litigation, such as the proactive use of discovery and new developments in the law regarding declaratory judgment actions. He also talked about the inequality of perception. To a judge, the first appearance that this is the government or big corporations vs. local welfare can shake perception. What can you do to rebalance the scales? Organize the farmers. The farmers who want to grow the crop with the genetic trait should be the human face on the technology. Let them tell the stories of higher yields and the financial impact on them and their families.

The theme of the day was to be proactive and engage. You can't just sit back and hope things turn your way because the science is on your side. There is more to it than that and you need to come prepared to win the battles in the social media and regulatory worlds.