Peter Kovacs spoke in President Lynn Gillette’s current topics class on Tuesday evening on the sixteen year controversy over genetically modified foods.  Kovacs, a chemist by training, served as the President and CEO of Kelco Company, a San Diego based specialty chemicals manufacturer and Division of Merck & Co., Inc. and led the sale of Kelco to Monsanto, where he joined the Operating Council and worked to merge the NutraSweet Company with Kelco.  He then served as President and CEO of NutraSweet Kelco which became one of the largest industrial biotechnology companies.

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Kovacs brought a unique historical perspective to the discussion, having been at the table in the mid-1990s when Mark Lynas and others from Greenpeace announced that the organization was launching a worldwide anti-GMO (genetically modified organisms) campaign. In preparation for class, Gillette’s students reviewed Lynas’ January 2013 speech to the Oxford Farming Conference in which he chronicled his transformation from key organizer of the anti-GMO food movement in Europe to a supporter of the technology.

Kovacs discussed the food value pyramid, delineating its varying sectors – farmers, agricultural input providers, processors, food manufacturers, retailers, and consumers – and detailed the forces that impact each one.  He discussed the recent announcement by Whole Foods Market to become the first national grocery chain to set a deadline for full GMO transparency.   In response to student questions regarding differing U.S. and European attitudes towards GMOs, he contrasted the regulatory systems in the U.S. and in European countries and outlined the impact of this on production and consumption.  He commented that in his view, agricultural issues were sensitive in every country, whether developed or underdeveloped, and needed to be determined by a country’s own regulatory policies, without external interference.