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Seed giants try to change image of GMO crops

A research biologist takes tissue samples from genetically modified corn plants inside a climate chamber housed in Monsanto agribusiness headquarters in St Louis.
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A research biologist takes tissue samples from genetically modified corn plants inside a climate chamber housed in Monsanto agribusiness headquarters in St Louis.

In an unprecedented partnership, the major seed and crop science companies have come together to launch a website hoping to improve the image of genetically-engineered crops.

GMOAnswers.com went live on Monday, serving up data about the industry, answering questions from the public, and linking to studies that claim no harmful effects from altering a crop's DNA.

Monsanto, DuPont, Dow AgroSciences, Syngenta, BASF and Bayer CropScience are all behind the venture as members of the Biotechnology Industry Organization.

So-called GMO seeds accounted for 35 percent of the $34 billion global commercial seed business last year, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications.

However, Europe has all but banned crops grown from GMO seeds, and there's growing resistance to them in the U.S., where nearly all corn and soybeans used to feed livestock have been modified.

In response, the industry is no longer avoiding the "GMO" acronym, instead putting it front and center of its campaign. As CNBC reported last month, the biggest threat to the industry may be efforts in different states to force the labeling of food products with GMO ingredients.

"Food is personal, so we want to open the door for personal discussions," said GMO Answers spokeswoman Cathleen Enright. "We recognize we haven't done the best job communicating about GMOs—what they are, how they are developed, food safety information—the science, data and processes."

Critics do not believe industry efforts will succeed in convincing consumers GMO foods are safe. "This latest effort will likely do little to stop the consumer backlash against genetically engineered foods that has been brewing for years," Wenonah Hauter of Food & Water Watch told Reuters.

The industry worries that food labeling could turn off consumers and encourage farmers to return to traditional seeds, which could, in turn, lead to smaller yields.

A story in this weekend's New York Times reports that many citrus farmers in Florida believe the only thing that may save the state's orange crop from an incurable disease will be DNA from another species.

"People are either going to drink transgenic orange juice or they're going to drink apple juice," said one University of Florida scientist. The fear is that given the choice, Americans will choose apple juice.

Whole Foods has committed to "full GMO transparency" by 2018, and Chipotle Mexican Grill is doing the same, "moving to remove such products from its supply chain."

GMO Answers includes a question and answer section. "How can you be sure that GMO foods won't affect human health long term?" asked one commenter from Albany, N.Y.

A reader responds, "After 17 years of commercial GM crops and therefore food, there has not been a single documented case of harm from consuming GM food. Proving a negative is impossible so we are left with looking at the track record of safety."

Another counters, "I do not understand how any serious scientist could make the argument that GMOs are safe because X number of meals have been eaten without anyone getting sick. The same argument was made about cigarettes for decades."

(Read more: Why the crop crunch won't cut your food bill)

"We want people to join us and ask their tough questions," said Enright, the website's spokeswoman. "Be skeptical. Evaluate the information and decide for yourself. We look forward to an open conversation."

—By Jane Wells, CNBC Reporter.