A California ballot initiative to require labeling food products that contain ingredients made from genetically modified crop varieties is a test of the public's trust in biotechnology, Mark Walton said at the annual Industry Alliance Meeting of the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture's Rice Processing Program May 23-24.

Walton, chief executive officer of MWalton Enterprises LLC in Austin, consults with companies and institutions in agriculture and agricultural biotechnology and work to promote biotechnology as a tool to help increase world food production. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Nebraska in agronomy with a specialty in plant breeding.

Walton's keynote address in the John W. Tyson Building auditorium on the U of A campus was to rice industry leaders from 14 companies in the U.S., Europe and South America who support Rice Processing Program research projects. The Arkansas Rice Research and Promotion Board also supports the program.

Arkansas farmers do not plant genetically modified varieties of rice because it is prohibited in some countries that import rice from Arkansas. That is unfortunate, Walton said, because major advances in rice production efficiency and nutritional content are possible through genetic engineering.

Several governmental and non-governmental agencies are promoting the use of genetically modified crop varieties to help feed a growing world population, Walton said. "Feed the Real World" is a 501(c)3 organization he has founded to campaign for wider acceptance of advances in crop production through biotechnology.

According to Walton, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration bases food labeling requirements on "actual product attributes," not the process by which ingredients were produced. A GMO label, as proposed in the California ballot initiative, would provide no information about a product's composition, Walton said.

A genetically modified organism is one that has been altered using the techniques of genetic engineering to insert a gene, which may be from the same organism or another organism. Genetic modification of a plant variety by conventional plant breeding as practiced since the nineteenth century also changes genetic traits of the variety for the better or worse. Walton said the method used to add, enhance or delete a genetic trait has no bearing on the actual product attributes.

"Trust is critical for innovation," Walton said. He likened the distrust of biotechnology as a means of improving food production and quality to that of groundbreaking scientists such as Nicolaus Copernicus andGalileo Galilei, who were branded Christian heretics for publishing their observations that the earth revolves around the sun.