WASHINGTON (B)--Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman March 29 asked a 43-member panel for advice on how his department can better deal with the social, economic and scientific issues surrounding the national "firestorm" of controversy surrounding genetically modified organisms (GMO) in food.

In a two-hour, first-ever session, members of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Biotech Advisory Committee listed an extensive array of U.S. and foreign concerns on genetically modified farming.

Committee members--who ranged from an organic food retailer to a producer of genetically modified seeds, a cotton and soybean farmer, a philosopher and a former congressman--addressed issues ranging from the definition of biotechnology in the context of food production to labels for food containing genetically altered ingredients. Other issues addressed were intellectual property rights regarding GMO seeds and the pollen flow from genetically altered crops to fields of non-GMO plants.

Glickman, speaking to reporters after the session, admitted it may be difficult getting the diverse panel to present a unified view on any GMO issues. But he stressed that the wealth of ideas and opinions that USDA expects to come from the group over the years are more important.

"I don't know if a consensus is possible," Glickman said of panel members, whose positions range from staunch support of genetically altered seeds to severe distrust of a technology that changes the very DNA of farm commodities.

The 43 panel members and the Secretary of Agriculture did agree that the wants and needs of consumers are the chief concern overshadowing everything else. What those want and needs are, though, is strongly disputed by the group.

Panel member Margaret Wittenberg, a spokeswoman for Whole Foods Market Inc., stressed that she believes U.S. public trust in the safety of genetically modified food is at "an all-time low." She strongly advocated policies that would force processors to label all food containing GMOs.

On the other side of the spectrum was Jimmy Dodson, a farmer and representative of the National Cotton Council. Dodson said he uses genetically modified seeds because he believes they are safe. He also stressed that he believes that U.S. consumers generally trust the government approval process that clears GMO products.

Glickman agreed with Dodson and told reporters he hopes the Biotech Advisory Committee will help USDA "keep (U.S.) consumer confidence high."

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